Mystery of the Pedal Marks in the Moonlight Sonata

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John Ruggero
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Mystery of the Pedal Marks in the Moonlight Sonata

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Beethoven’s experiments with pedal effects in his published sonatas started with op. 26, where the pedal is used to depict a drum roll and a fade-out ending. Not having a precedent, he was forced to invent a new notation for prolonged use of the sustaining pedal. Being the practical musician he was, he continued the tradition of Italian markings. So he wrote senza sordino (without dampers) to show where pedal was to be depressed to lift all the dampers off the strings, canceled by con sordino to indicate the normal state with the dampers resting on the strings. This worked well enough for single isolated special effects such as in the drum roll from op. 26:
op 26.3 ex 1.jpeg
op 26.3 ex 1.jpeg (83.77 KiB) Viewed 304 times
He used the same notation in the last movement of the op. 27 no. 2, a sonata that seems to be all about the sustaining pedal. The first movement used continuous sustaining pedal throughout, possibly the first piano piece to do so. At the beginning of this movement he simply states in Italian that the whole piece is to be played senza sordini.

In the third movement, he used the sustaining pedal to mark the explosive pair of chords that recur throughout the opening theme:
op 27 no 2.3 ex 2.jpeg
op 27 no 2.3 ex 2.jpeg (192.03 KiB) Viewed 304 times
As seen, he wrote in senza sordino under the two final chords, and then con sordino at the beginning of the next measure. This worked best since there was no room to place both markings within a single measure. Judging from the ink and evident haste in writing them, he seems to have inserted the no less than 18 pairs of pedal marks for these final chords sometime after writing the rest of the manuscript.

It is at the last of these pairs, m. 163 a problem arises that has long been a subject of debate:
op 27 no 2.3 ex 3.jpeg
op 27 no 2.3 ex 3.jpeg (224.88 KiB) Viewed 304 times
op 27 no 2.3 ex 4.jpeg
op 27 no 2.3 ex 4.jpeg (65.09 KiB) Viewed 304 times
MS. 163-164 and 165-166 are two pairs of similar measures, both written-out hand-over-hand broken diminished seventh chords. The second pair is marked as one would expect, senza sordino followed by a con sordino in the next measure, (see ex 4) that is, the pedal is to hold through the entire two measures. But m. 163 is marked con sordino as if ms. 163-164 are to be played without the sustaining pedal. How can this be?

Most editions and pianists ignore this strange con sordino and use the sustaining pedal for both sets of measures. And this is undoubtedly what should happen. Despite the fact that the rolled chords are laboriously written-out (to be sure that they are held through by hand), the first bass note in each pair must be held through both measures to create the thunderous effect clearly intended. Leaving the final held chords high and “dry” would be totally counter-productive, As well, the holding these low bass notes for two measures makes them match their continuation at the next explosion in ms. 177-190 etc.:
op 27 no 2 ex 5.jpeg
op 27 no 2 ex 5.jpeg (65.51 KiB) Viewed 304 times
Yet the issue of the pesky con sordino in m. 163 remains. How could Beethoven have made such a blunder? I offer here an explanation that I have not encounted in discussions of this issue..

Let’s imagine Beethoven writing in the senza sordino-con sordino pairs. All is going well until he has finished writing in the senza sordino in m. 162. He cancels it with a con sordino in m. 163. Oops, an unexpected problem. Where to put the senza sordino at the beginning of m. 163? There’s already con sordino there. Put them on top of each other? No, that doesn’t work. Move the con sordino back into the previous measure? That would create a big problem for the engraver. Still pondering the issue, he goes on to m. 165 and writes in the senza sordino and the con sordino in m. 167.

What happened next is complete conjecture, Maybe he thought that showing what he wanted in ms. 165-166 would suffice for 163-164. Who would play them differently? Maybe he just left it up to the publisher. This was always fraught with peril and this time was not different. They did the worst thing they could do by removing the one correct senza sordino in m. 165 and leaving the following con sordino in m. 167 stranded:
op 27 no 2.3 CappiA.jpeg
op 27 no 2.3 CappiA.jpeg (154.49 KiB) Viewed 220 times
op 27 no 2.3 CappiB.jpeg
op 27 no 2.3 CappiB.jpeg (66.07 KiB) Viewed 220 times


While he didn’t solve the problem at this point, Beethoven did learn an important lesson. He used his old system once more in op. 28, where it is unproblematic. Then he switched in op. 31 no. 2 to the Ped. O system that he would use for the rest of his life.
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