Not where you are in your quarantine, existentially speaking, but I’ve arrived, with the growing understanding that none of this is going to end soon, at acceptance. And since I’m going to be here a while, I realize I need something to prevent my brain from turning to mush and sliding out my ear as I hit play on the next episode of whatever show I’m half-heartedly binging.
So I’ve chosen a goal that I may actually be motivated to reach now that I’m putting it in writing: I’m learning to play the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on guitar.
Or, rather, resuming learning. Back in college, I had a crush on a person who told me the Moonlight Sonata was her favorite piece of music, so one holiday break, I gave myself the homework assignment of learning how to play it on an acoustic guitar, or at least enough of it to impress her.
It didn’t work, and I’ll blame that on my wild underestimation of the musical ability necessary to play that piece (rather than, say, being the kind of person who assumed a woman would be dazzled by guitar proficiency). Since then, the Moonlight Sonata seared itself into my brain — at least the first minute or so, which is as far as I’ve ever gotten with my existing skill set. But now, with enough time on my hands to indulge a fanciful obsession, I’m going to conquer this White Whale.
The proper name of the piece, which Beethoven finished in 1801, is “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor,” but its nickname came from a critic who likened the melody to moonlight reflected off the surface of a lake. It is beloved, instantly recognizable and fiendishly difficult to master, and that’s on piano, the instrument for which it was composed. Translated to guitar, it’s an even gnarlier beast, full of dissonant melodic runs and finger positionings that are nonsensical even to advanced players.
Beethoven famously composed the sonata as he was losing his hearing, which is a staggering thing to contemplate. How could a composer, even a genius, write something so breathtaking and timeless without access to the sense needed to measure its worth? How should we hear it when its author could not? How can music be written, performed and felt without the ordinary perception of sound?
There is a lovely documentary called “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” that examines these questions from the perspective of a family uniquely equipped to explore them. Released last year and available on HBO Go, the film shares the experience of deafness across generations of director Irene Taylor Brodsky’s family, starting with her parents, both deaf, and focusing on her son, Jonas, who was born with hearing and started to become deaf as a toddler.
At 11, Jonas, a gifted piano player, begins learning the sonata’s first movement for an upcoming recital, in part because he thinks it will help him understand his own relationship to sound. And like anyone who tackles the piece, he runs into walls of self-doubt and thinks about quitting.
Jonas realizes he might get all the notes right but still deliver a subpar performance because so much of it is about emotion rather than technical precision. “Every time Beethoven resolves something, or repeats it, pay attention,” the young player’s teacher tells him, “because he’s trying to communicate a feeling.”
It’s only after removing his cochlear implants, and interacting with the music as Beethoven would have, that Jonas really understands the sonata. He nails the recital because he’s hearing something in the spaces between Beethoven’s notes that is unknowable to those with full access to the world of sound.
Back in my quarantine zone, on a good night, I’ll have made my hands comfortable with another one or two measures of the Moonlight Sonata.
It’s frustrating and thrilling to know that as soon as I’ve mastered a seemingly impossible chord change, something even more difficult awaits. And that’s just the notes that are on the page.