From: Hands On, Lights Off: The “Moonlight” Sonata and the Birth of Sex at the Piano
In 1798 Beethoven published a piano sonata that quickly rose to the top of the classical charts and would stay there in perpetuity. Three years later he did the same thing again with even greater success. The sonatas were the ones known respectively as the “Pathetique” and the “Moonlight. ” The two works share both certain types of music and a certain fate. At first, both were esteemed primarily for their relentlessly passionate fast movements; eventually, their lyrical, introspective slow movements came to the fore, giving both sonatas flourishing second careers as romantic mood music. The “Pathetique” was a late bloomer in this respect. It did not become a full-fledged romantic standard until the mid-1960s, when its slow movement was adapted as the theme music for a television show, the early nighttime soap opera Peyton Place, based on Grace Metalious's bestselling novel of 1956, a scandalously steamy book at the time. With the “Moonlight, ” however, the romanticizing and eroticizing process started long before television—no later, in fact, than 1840. It has been going strong ever since.
The romantic history of the “Moonlight” Sonata is my topic in this chapter. I want to understand it as a small but significant episode in both the history of musical meaning and the history of sexuality. The two histories meet because with this sonata ascribing meaning to music became a means of ascribing sexuality to bodies, and vice versa, something made possible by understanding both the music and the bodies to be of a certain type. My discussion will accordingly focus at first more on how the music has been culturally situated than on the music itself, though at the same time it will show continually that this distinction is at best a convenient fiction. The boundary implied by the term itself is—itself—a product of the way musical experience is culturally situated.