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7 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by the Moon

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Full moon surrounded by clouds over Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Full moon surrounded by clouds over Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

The Life-Giving Moon

Whether you follow the phases of the moon, its influence on the tides or are so fascinated by it you are prepared to fly thousands of miles to see an eclipse, there's no doubt that the moon has intrigued man for millennia. Scientists believe without its influence on the earth, life may not have evolved.

Antonin Dvorak 1841–1904 (photograph of Dvorak in 1904)

Antonin Dvorak 1841–1904 (photograph of Dvorak in 1904)

1. Dvorak: "Rusalka, Song to the Moon"

Dvorak wrote ten operas in all, but only Rusalka remains in regular circulation.

Fond of setting traditional tales to music - he wrote several tone poems with folklore at their heart - Ruslka tells the sad tale of a rusalka, or water nymph, wishing to join the human world when she falls in love with a prince. Rusalka sings Song to the Moon, demonstrating to her family she is serious about being with the prince even though it will mean she loses her immortality and power of speech and the prince will die, his soul damned.

Predictably, it all ends in tears. The prince is already entangled with a foreign princess who curses the couple. Nevertheless, the prince kisses Rusalka, and while she is able to return to her underwater life his is condemned.1

Song to the Moon is yearning, the harp reminding us that Rusalka's world is one of water. Rusalka enters on a soaring octave leap, curling back on itself, designed to play with her family's heartstrings who don't want her seeking out human love; the price is too high for both parties.

The lyrics tell of Rusalka asking the moon to seek out her princely love and assume the role of messenger - to tell the object of her desire that she awaits him. It's in a major key, but the orchestral writing after the main theme is impregnated with a warning sinister air, the minor key always ready to watch over Rusalka and cloud the moon she desperately hopes will not fade from view.

A popular concert aria, Song of the Moon is the most familiar excerpt from Rusalka and there are a range of beautiful performances, though this warm and passionate singing by Renee Fleming is my personal favourite.

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827 (painting of Beethoven by Karl Stieler c1819)

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827 (painting of Beethoven by Karl Stieler c1819)

2. Beethoven: "Moonlight Sonata"

The Moonlight Sonata is probably the most recognised sonata by classical music buffs - and those who prefer other types of listening, but it wasn't Beethoven who scribbled the title on the frontispiece. In fact, it didn't appear until a few years after Beethoven's death. The critic Ludwig Rellstab mused that it reminded him of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. It stuck and it has been referred to as the Moonlight Sonata ever since.2

Although it's the first movement which is the most familiar, there are three in all:

  1. Andante sostenuto
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto agitato
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It's written in C sharp minor, the first movement sitting comfortably under the fingers. As well as the speed indication, Beethoven adds a direction as to the manner in which it should be played - quasi una fantasia - like a fantasy. The steady arpeggiated right hand, instantly recognisable, provides the trellis on which the long, drawn-out melody clings, feeling its way, rocking between major and minor as Schubert does so effectively. There is no overt drama, it's all very understated, suppressed almost, as it descends into the lake of stillness at the final bars. The sonata is saving itself for the last movement.

After the solemnity of the quaisi fantasia the allegretto pops up brightly, flipping over into the major key - D flat, C sharp's counterpart. The offbeat rhythms enliven this spritely second movement, Beethoven in high sprits before launching into the raging finale, living off nervous energy, a highly strung stallion tossing its head fighting to avoid capture, until at the final bars it's lassoed and brought to a standstill.

Claude Debussy 1862–1918 (photograph of Debussy in 1908)

Claude Debussy 1862–1918 (photograph of Debussy in 1908)

3. Debussy: "Suite Bergamasque, Clair de Lune"

In the same key as the middle movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," the atmosphere of Clair de Lune couldn't be different.

Debussy's moon invites you to take a comfortable seat and settle back while it glides you along on a seamless journey. The hazy light filters down onto subdued shapes with a lightness of touch just long enough for you to make out a silvered clump of flowers, or a patch of moss, a copse, mystically silhouetted in the distance before setting you down with the most imperceptible of landings.

Arnold Schönberg 1874–1951 (Schonberg in 1948)

Arnold Schönberg 1874–1951 (Schonberg in 1948)

4. Schönberg: "Pierrot Lunaire"

We've all heard of being love-struck. But moonstruck? Not so familiar, I'll wager. But that is the Pierrot of Pierrot Lunaire.

The moon was supposed to be highly influential in inducing madness - the word lunacy is derived from this ill-conceived notion. Pierrot has come under the influence of the moon in this troubling melodrama that scratched Schönberg's name on to the annals of music history.

At the time of writing Pierrot Lunaire, Schönberg had not developed his 12 tone technique, however, the work is atonal. The lack of any key is a metaphor for instability, but Schönberg hasn't gone completely off the rails. There is structure to hold on to, albeit unsteady.

Schönberg set 21 poems to his revolutionary music by Albert Giraut, the unstable thoughts of Pierrot/the narrator and his unhealthy relationship with the moon.

The work is written for voice - Schönberg left it unspecified as male or female - flute, doubling on piccolo, clarinet, doubling on bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Derangement reigns from the outset, largely due to the fact that the work isn't strictly sung at all, it is what is described as sprechstimme, or speech-singing, the notes never sustained.

The starkness of the instrumentation weaves tendrils around the singer-cum-narrator, an alternating undercurrent of taunts, commentaries and collusion, slippery footholds, a distorting hall of mirrors, as spartan as the thin moonlight, haunting and hysterical, grasping at conventional musical structure for some sort of deranged stability.

There is a wealth of recognisably idiomatic, highly virtuosic, writing for the instruments - no less than forty rehearsals were required to stage the first performance.3

The music has nothing in common with one's regular experience, tethered to keys however slack the line, this is exposure to the paranormal all under the dubious influence of an all-seeing moon.

Schönberg, the Janus composer, looks back in time and into the future - baroque and romantic phrasing, a Chopin arpeggiated bass line from the piano, even the weirdest of waltzes and barcarolles have their sinister parts to play, as the clash of the old with the new struggle to co-exist.

Schönberg has created a nightmare mock-dancing world, the straight jacket a flautist's breath away. Even O Alter Duft which ends Pierrot Lunaire inhabits the underworld of the cabaret, an exhausted plea to be bewitched by the land of fairy tales.

Benjamin Britten 1913–1976

Benjamin Britten 1913–1976

5. Britten: "Peter Grimes, Four Sea Interludes: No 3 Moonlight"

As with Pierrot Lunaire, moonlight in Britten's great opera reflects the onset of madness in the title character. Gruff and insular, Peter Grimes is ostracised by his community because he is unable to fit in. To make matters worse, a second death at sea of one of Peter Grimes' first mates has occurred, a situation that the townspeople use to tighten the screws on the increasingly isolated Grimes, hurling allegations of, at best, negligence.

Grimes is unable to hide from the moonlit spotlight shining on the beach as he paces up and down, trained on his every distressed footstep, the moon standing in for the accusatory inhabitants, the inference that he has murdered one of their own ringing in his ears. No matter that fishing is a dangerous occupation.

Britten's moonlight is no ethereal shimmering entity. It is heavy, pulsating with the tide, a brooding pale face watching over Grimes as he treads the beach, drawing him back to the sea where he will soon meet his end.

Leos Janacek 1854–1928 (photograph of Janacek with his wife, dated 1881)

Leos Janacek 1854–1928 (photograph of Janacek with his wife, dated 1881)

6. Janacek Opera: "The Excursions of Mr Broucek to the Moon"

Janacek initially had the idea for the opera around 1908. It was based on a novel by Svatopluk Cech, though he wasn't able to access the sole rights to the novel until after Cech's death. Mr Broucek is a surprising character with alcoholic tendencies who is imagines himself transported to the moon where he meets a group of cultural elitists.

Cech was a savage satirist, the implication being that one would find more culture on the moon than in the higher echelons of the Czech bourgousie. Mr Broucek's second journey transports him back in time, all the way to the fifteenth century.

Janacek wanted to impose his own embellishment of the story but the librettists he collaborated with several did not always agree with his vision. Several years passed before the work was finally completed and performed in 1920 at the National Theatre in Prague.4

In the introduction to the opera, you can identify the jaunty gait of Mr Broucek, and the type of expansive themes redolent of his Sinfonietta, and a happy antidote to so much of Janacek's tormented and desolate writing.

Joseph Haydn 1732–1809 (painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792)

Joseph Haydn 1732–1809 (painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792)

7. Haydn: "Opera 'The World of the Moon'"

Haydn's tenure at the Esterházy palace was extremely fruitful. He had a crack orchestra at his disposal and an employer who had more than a passing interest in music - Haydn taught Prince Nikolaus the unfamiliar instrument, the baryton.

The opera was written for Prince Nikolaus' wedding in 1777 to the Countess Maria Anna Wissewolf.5 It concerns a pseudo astronomer who is intent on hoodwinking people into believing they can see spurious things on the moon through his telescope and can even fly to it. All events relating to the moon in the opera are written in E flat, a round warm key, reflecting the soft light the moon radiates.

As is often the case in comic operas, daughters are due to be married off against their will while already being in love. But by way of administering an elixir to their father with the property to cloud reality, it encourages him to believe he's attending a ceremony on the moon in which he gives his blessing to the marriages his daughters seek. All's well that ends well, as they say.

Though not for Haydn as it happens - it was thought to be a bit of idiotic lunacy by the Esterházys and didn't get another outing.6 Some years later, Haydn recycled the overture to his unappreciated opera into the first movement of his symphony no 63.


1 Opera Lyon

2 Hyperion records

3 Lumen Music Appreciation

4 Wikipedia

5 Wikipedia

6 George Predota

Questions & Answers

Question: Is there any classical music about gay people?

Answer: Not specifically about gay people as far as I'm aware, though there are plenty of gay composers (Britten, Szymanowski, for example).


FlourishAnyway from USA on June 07, 2018:

Clair de Lune was my favorite. It was simply dinner, relaxing and absolutely beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to new music.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on June 07, 2018:

HI Linda. There is certainly lots to learn about classical music - I find out more every time I research, which is one of the great joys of writing articles, I find. Thanks for reading.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 06, 2018:

I love your descriptions of the music, Frances. I'm enjoying learning more about classical music by reading your articles. There's a lot to explore in each one.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on June 06, 2018:

What observant comments, Bede! I can't disagree with your verdict. The most surprising, for me is the Janacek, who I absolutely adore. Good to have a pinch of idiocy now and then as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, and it fits the bill.

Bede from Minnesota on June 05, 2018:

This was quite an in depth and interesting article, Frances. The interweaving of moon facts was a good addition. I had a taste of all the music, and here’s my verdict: Debussy’s is the prettiest, Schonberg’s is the craziest, and Beethoven is the heaviest- in the good sense. The moon usually serves as a good catchall simile, “Calm as the moon,” etc.

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