Where to begin … well, let’s try the beginning: Along time ago in a place far, far away (depends on your perspective, it was Kansas City, Kansas somewhere between 1949-1950) I was a lad of about seven years old. It was a Saturday, a day on which my mother was usually home (she was a factory worker for Colgate-Pamolive on a Monday-Friday shift), but not this day. I don’t know why, but it might have been an overtime opportunity — as an essentially single mom, she could hardly afford to pass such an opportunity up — or perhaps some important appointment that I wasn’t to attend. So I was being watched by a young babysitter.
The story commences with our babysitter’s desire to attend a Saturday matinee at a local movie house (somewhere on Minnesota Avenue) that was near our house. So she had to drag me along. I don’t recall whether we walked or were given a ride. And what was the movie? Well, as best as I can recall, from my perspective as a young boy, it was an awful horror show about a hand of an aristocrat or some such person who was murdered and came back — the hand, anyway — for revenge. From some of the clothing, I thought that it was set in some earlier time and maybe not in America. In fact, though I didn’t remember the exact name of the movie, I thought for years that it was “The Hand”. An interesting thing about this hand is that it could play the piano, and one tune got stuck in my head and made such a great impression that I remembered it for years. It was hauntingly beautiful, and the only good thing I took away from that awful movie experience.
OK, let’s fast forward now to another summer day in 1956 when I was a lad of 14: I was cruising around town with my two outsider friends (so was I), Billy and Richard Crum. No, I wasn’t driving; Billy was, since he had his folks’ car and a driving permit. Richard sat in the front with Billy and was busy turning the radio dial and trying to find something he’d like to listen to. Good luck with that, right? After all, it was the 50’s, the age of “doodawat doodawat”, “doggie in the window” and “hound dogs” (sorry, Elvis fans). Even then I thought that the current popular music was for the most part utter trap! But wait! Somehow Richard accidentally tuned into FM (I think) radio and I heard it: “STOP! DON’T CHANGE THE STATION, RICH!” I shouted. He obliged, and I got to hear some of that hauntingly beautiful melody again. I wanted to know its title and author, and shortly I got my answer: The piece was the Moonlight Sonata written by some guy named “Baytoven” or something like that. I had to get a copy of that music!!
I don’t recall if it was that same night or a little later that summer when Billy, Richard and I cruised into the parking lot of a kind of pre-Walmart store. Billy and Richard headed over to the popular music section of the music record aisles, while I started perusing the not-all-that-large classical section. I finally found an LP of some music by this “Beethoven” guy, but it wasn’t the Moonlight; rather, it was a “Fifth Symphony”. I guess I looked puzzled, because a young clerk came over and asked me if I needed any help. So I asked who the dour looking 18th century clothed guy on the cover of this LP was. She responded that it was Ludwig van Beethoven (correctly pronounced!) , a very famous composer. “Why, he’s considered by some to be the father of modern jazz” she opined. “Hmmm…”, I thought as I looked at the cover again, “that’s odd ….”. “Oh well, may as well try it out”, I decided. So she made a sale. I’ve always wondered if she was putting me on for the sale or actually knew something. Strangely enough, somewhere recently I read that Beethoven introduced in some of his works a novel variation in rhythm that could be considered syncopation of a sort. Wow, so that clerk may not have been as clueless as she sounded!
I took the record home and didn’t play it since it was late. The next day I brought into my room a rather pitiful portable record player — the kind that was popular with teens in the 50’s. (At least it did play 33 rpm records, not just 45’s.) I plopped my new record on it, started it up and … I was stunned!! The music was electric! Fierce! No one had to tell me anything about Beethoven. I felt that I already knew him — that he was speaking directly to me in that magnificent language without words: instrumental music. That event changed my attitude towards music forever: I started to explore classical music and collecting other records. Eventually, I wore my original copy of the Fifth out — after all, the record player I used was pretty cheap and really designed to play 45’s. Although there are many works that I enjoy nowadays, to this day I especially enjoy all of Beethoven’s symphonies and still listen to them on my mp3 player when I exercise.
There are a few postscripts to my story. For one, I had two interesting experiences in the past year. Both happened while I was driving over to my daughter Becca’s house to care for her cats while she was out of town. It’s about a 15 minute drive, and I always have my car radio set to our local PBS station NET, so I have a chance to catch some background classical music while I drive. Twice, I caught the tail end of a piece that really got my attention. The first time, I had to wait in my parked vehicle for the finish and attribution by the announcer. “Hey”, I thought, “this has energy — it’s really good!”. And what was the piece? It was the overture in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. The second time, I was still driving and again, there was the end of a movement of a violin and orchestra piece that had a wonderful quality and again I thought “Hey, this is really good!”. The piece? A concerto for violin by Beethoven. Again! So I’m happy to report that Beethoven is still speaking to me — after all these years.
The second postscript is rather puzzling to me. With all the information that’s now available on the Internet, I thought that I could locate that movie “The Hand” and perhaps even see the Hand playing the Moonlight. So I searched complete lists of movies in the years 1946 – 1950. No Hand! However, I did subsequently find a remake of the 1946 movie “The Beast with Five Fingers” in 1981 that had the title “The Hand”. With a bit more googling I was able to watch portions of the 1946 movie and sure enough, it seemed to the best of my memory to be the movie I saw at that Saturday matinee. There’s only one problem: the hand did not play the Moonlight! It played a piano transcription of Bach’s “Chaconne” which, though a beautiful piece, was definitely not the Moonlight, nor could you mistake one for the other if you listened very long. So what’s going on? For years I could remember the Moonlight being played by that hand! Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? My only conjecture on this point is that when I watched the movie I didn’t store the tune very well in my memory, though I could vividly recall the hand playing a haunting melody. But the hand had to be playing something, so somewhere in the distant past, I must have attached to it a melody that I could recall, the Moonlight. Of course, the hand should have played the Moonlight, damit!!! After all, the hand was haunted and the Moonlight is hauntingly beautiful, isn’t it?
And finally, it’s rather funny when you think about it: Playing the Chaconne or the Moonlight requires two hands, and I think that in one of segments of the Chaconne that the hand played you could see the piano but not the keyboard, and it sounded very much like two hands playing. Ah well, the naivety of youth …
Another postscript (03/12/22): I never paid much attention to the second and third movements of the Moonlight until recently. Quite by chance I happened onto a YouTube video of a performance of the third movement by Valentina Lisitsa:
As I wrote some five months ago in a Comment below the performance video: “Thank you, Valentina, for this overwhelming magnificent performance of Beethoven’s profound expression of mad grief. So powerful. So compelling. Thank you.”
Her performance brought into clear focus the real meaning of Sonata 14, the Moonlight, to me personally. About the meme “Moonlight Sonata”: Beethoven never called it that, this came after his death and my guess is that he wouldn’t have cared for it. Unfortunately, I’ve read that he grew to hate the Moonlight because people constantly asked him to play it. He did, after all, produce a whole lot more piano music including 32 piano sonatas (speaking of which I can’t recommend the final movements of Sonatas 1 and 32 strongly enough: such intensity and pure Beethoven! In Sonata 1, the first three movements are the routine kind of thing that sells sheet music, but the fourth movement announces with explosive energy that this is Beethoven; and the second movement of Sonata 32 begins and ends with quiet wistful melancholy moments, while the central part simply sparkles with happiness — was he announcing his farewell to sonatas?).
Now I understand that musical interpretation of nonvocal music is highly subjective, but I’m going to conclude with the meanings of the movements of the Moonlight to me. Perhaps they are colored by my loss several years ago of my most beloved wife Muriel, but here they are:
First movement: Yes, I know that popular image of looking over a beautiful lake in the moonlight, but that is not at all what I hear or see. Rather, I hear sorrow over the loss of someone or something that is never coming back. And regret — this is an achingly beautiful, haunting and touching piece of music.
Second movement: Honestly, I hear sound and technical accomplishment in this movement, but little else — perhaps I need to listen harder. To me it is an intermission, little else.
Third movement: My thanks to Valentina says it all: a profound expression of mad grief. This is the proper conclusion to the sentiments of the first movement, and it is incredibly powerful and overwhelming. Listen carefully to Valentina’s performance of it and see if you can feel the rage and sorrow of it. And in any case, if you do watch her performance, please thank her in the Comments for this magnificent performance of Beethoven’s work!