If contrast were his intent, then Beethoven is at his most successful-the three movements of the “Moonlight” sonata could hardly differ more. But while they hold little in common character-wise, they maintain a poetic coherence though the drama their contrast creates. A dialogue emerges between them that examines something deeper than just the forms of a sonata or the tonal varieties of C# minor. What is expressed evokes the sense of something human, a sense of suffering, or toil, perhaps, against some nebulous darkness.
The slow first movement establishes this intense feeling of pathos. The grim persistence of the bass, three notes repeated again and again, gives an impression of emptiness and of stasis. It seems inescapable, heavy, almost mournful. It weighs down, and in its constancy it calls attention to the silence in the melody. Arising from it though, a single, tentative voice asserts its presence, as if asking a question-the silence that follows though only reinforces the sense of emptiness. The voice seems to speak of loneliness and confinement, of bleakness and sorrow, but at times a soft, hopeful glimmer surfaces, as if longing for something more, or better, or different. As the movement closes, however, that hope seems to surrender, overwhelmed and replaced with a sense of finality.
The second movement, by contrast, is far more contented. It feels more open and free, almost flighty, and possesses a kind of sing-song quality. Also, unlike the first, the second movement retains a sense of mobility-with something that could be described as an ambling gait-and seems to have a clear idea of purpose or direction (though not necessarily a destination). Yet next to the first movement, its levity seems somehow false or out of place. A clear response to the confusion of the second phrase, the theme from the first phrase re-turns in the third, back on the tonic, determined and unrelenting. Yet now it manages to climb even higher than in the first phrase, as if through familiarity, the motion has become less difficult. Twice it reaches an invisible ceiling and resets, but on its third ascent, it fails to reach its peak-instead of the expected “plunks” the melody falters, tumbling unexpectedly downward, by skip and step, back to where it began its climb. This acts as a kind of set back-perhaps a loss of confidence or onset of doubt or weakness after seven failed attempts to break through some invisible barrier.