November 24, 2020

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

In Geveb, 11/24/2020

This children’s tale, writ­ten by Shloyme Bas­tom­s­ki, offers an apoc­ryphal ori­gin for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2. The sonata, which was writ­ten in 1801, only came to be known as the ​“Moon­light Sonata” after Beethoven’s death, fol­low­ing an evoca­tive descrip­tion of the piece made by music crit­ic Lud­wig Rell­stab. Not writ­ten for any known com­mis­sion and marked with the some­what mys­te­ri­ous super­scrip­tion ​“Sonata qua­si una fan­ta­sia,” a vari­ety of ori­gin sto­ries for the work have pro­lif­er­at­ed includ­ing spec­u­la­tion sur­round­ing the work’s ded­i­ca­tion to Beethoven’s pupil and love-inter­est Count­ess Giuli­et­ta Guicciardi.

The sto­ry here, told by Shloyme Bas­tom­s­ki (1891−1941), posits that the work was impro­vised by moon­light for a blind orphan girl and her broth­er. A vari­a­tion of this ori­gin myth can also be found in the 1909 film, ​“Ori­gin of Beethoven’s Moon­light Sonata,” direct­ed by Thomas Edi­son. It seems that both the film and Bastomski’s Yid­dish sto­ry were draw­ing on pre­ex­ist­ing lore. Bas­tom­s­ki pub­lished the sto­ry in the March 15th, 1927 issue of his children’s jour­nal Grininke beymelekh for the occa­sion of Beethoven’s 100th yort­sayt. The sto­ry was then pub­lished again in 1928 as a stand­alone vol­ume.

Bas­tom­s­ki was a Yid­dish ped­a­gogue and edu­ca­tor ded­i­cat­ed to cre­at­ing resources for the bur­geon­ing Yid­dish school sys­tem. He cre­at­ed the pub­lish­ing house Di naye yidishe folksshul, and found­ed and edit­ed two Yid­dish children’s jour­nals: Der khaver and Grininke beymelekh. Bas­tom­s­ki was also active as a folk­lore col­lec­tor. He col­lect­ed and pub­lished a vari­ety of folk­lore includ­ing proverbs, apho­risms, say­ings, rid­dles, sto­ries, jokes, songs, and children’s games; head­ed the folk­lore sec­tion of the Sh. An-ski Vil­na Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Ethno­graph­ic Soci­ety; and was a mem­ber of the folk­lore com­mis­sion of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research.

Bas­tom­s­ki saw his work with folk­lore and ped­a­gogy as inex­tri­ca­bly linked. As Itzik Gottes­man explains in his book Defin­ing the Yid­dish Nation, ​“edu­ca­tion through folk­lore” was at the heart of Bastomski’s work: ​“folk­lore, in his vision, would nur­ture the child. The youth should be guid­ed by its folk trea­sures in the folk tongue.” And yet, while folk­lore was cen­tral to Bastomski’s Yid­dish-ped­a­gogy project, this sto­ry is an impor­tant reminder that writ­ers, ped­a­gogues, and pub­lish­ers like Bas­tom­s­ki sought mate­r­i­al not just from with­in the Jew­ish world, but from out­side of it as well. Engag­ing with world lit­er­a­ture and world cul­ture was a key com­po­nent for a move­ment which sought to cel­e­brate Yid­dish-lan­guage cul­ture with­out being parochial

This trans­la­tion was recit­ed ear­li­er this year as part of a pro­gram orga­nized by YIVO called ​“Beethoven in the Yid­dish Imag­i­na­tion” to mark the 250th anniver­sary of com­pos­er Lud­wig van Beethoven’s birth.

Click here to view the translation.