Friday, November 9, 2012

Agitato: The Moonlight Sonata

My deep fascination with this work is made all the more compelling by how beloved it is by people of all ages, including very young children.

Many below-the-surface aspects of the work make it worthy of continued study beyond its evident technical challenges.  One of its biggest conundrums is the marking of the last movement: Presto agitato.  As noted in a dictionary (Koch's Lexicon, an early 19th century music dictionary), agitato cannot mean fast, as there are many words to indicate speed and qualities of speed.  So what might it mean?

I observe agitato to mean that what seems to be strictly duple rhythm is not, but that it contains undercurrents of three, sometimes five, or perhaps both at once.  Looking at the sixteenth-note broken chord figures in that movement it is striking that they begin after a sixteenth rest.  That means that there are 7 beats of sixteenths minus one sixteenth note; i.e., 27 not 28 notes in the passage.  Try playing the figure in sets of three against the clear duple eighths in the left hand.  You and the (night and the) music will become instantly agitated, I assure you.

Last spring when I performed this way  listeners commented that I played it faster than most people.  I am sure that this is not the case, but I am prepared to believe that it felt faster.

A recent performance of the work in Avery Fisher Hall was faster than I have ever heard it played.  Was it agitated?  Not in the slightest.