On our "Back and Fourth" page — about the legend of a music student caught handing in a backwards version of someone else's composition rather than creating his own — we discuss the concept that (in western music, at least) one cannot create a viable piece of music by simply reversing an existing work. This prompted many readers to write to us and maintain that John Lennon had done just that, creating the song "Because" (on the Beatles' Abbey Road album) by turning Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" backwards. Although there is some basis for this statement, "Because" is far from being merely a reversed version of a Beethoven work in the literal sense implied in the college legend.
Beethoven's sonata in C-sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 2, originally titled "quasi una fantasia" and also known as the "Arbor" sonata), written in 1801, has been associated with a number of romantic stories. When the sonata was published in 1803 it was dedicated to his young piano student Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, but Beethoven apparently did not have her in mind at the time he wrote it. The "Moonlight Sonata" (a title not given to the piece until after Beethoven's death) was immediately popular upon publication and has remained the most well-known of Beethoven's sonatas ever since, although most people are familiar only with the first of the sonata's three movements. John Lennon's dream-like "Because," recorded in gorgeous nine-part harmony (three voices recorded three times) for the Beatles' final album in 1969, shares several attributes — its key (C-sharp minor), its chord structure, and its use of arpeggios (tones of a chord played in succession rather than simultaneously) — with Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," but "Because" is not at all a song created by simply turning a Beethoven work around from back to front.
Finding similarities between the music of the Beatles and Beethoven is intriguing because it highlights a commonality between the (supposedly antithetical) high art of a cultured classical composer and the popular music of four provincial, musically unschooled and self-taught Liverpudlian youths, and the idea of the Beatles' turning a piece of music backwards certainly requires no stretch of the imagination when one recalls their use of reversed vocals in the fade-out of "Rain" or the backwards guitar solo in "I'm Only Sleeping." However, "Because" is more accurately described as a song based upon or inspired by the reverse structure of a Beethoven piece rather than as "'Moonlight Sonata' backwards."
John Lennon himself is the person responsible for the "backwards" claim, having explained the origins of "Because" many times in words similar to the following:
[Yoko] trained as a classical musician. I didn't know that until this morning. In college she majored in classical composition. Now we stimulate each other like crazy. This morning I wrote this song called "Because." Yoko was playing some classical bit, and I said "Play that backwards," and we had a tune.
However, a survey of John's (and Yoko's) comments about "Because" demonstrate that what Lennon had in mind was a song based upon a reversal of "Moonlight Sonata"'s chord progression, not literally a backwards version of the piece:
This is about me and Yoko in the early days. Yoko was playing some Beethoven chords and I said to play them backwards. ["Because"] is really "Moonlight Sonata" backwards.
Piano has been my security blanket all my life, and whenever I'm nervous or something, I tend to go to the piano. I was playing "Moonlight Sonata," I think, and John said, "its beautiful, beautiful — ah, could we just hear the chords, and could we play it from this end, and all that, you know, sort of backwards".
And he used the chord progression . . . from the back on. It worked.
Well, it wasn't quite the reverse, I mean, it wasn't exact or anything — that was the inspiration.
Even at that, "Because" is much more than a song based on the chord sequence of "Moonlight Sonata" in reverse — the chord progressions of "Because" and a backwards "Moonlight Sonata" are similar but not identical, and the melody of "Because" is much closer to a forwards version of "Moonlight Sonata" than a backwards one, as John acknowledged:
I was lying on the sofa in our house, listening to Yoko play Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' on the piano. Suddenly, I said, 'Can you play those chords backward?' She did, and I wrote 'Because' around them. The song sounds like 'Moonlight Sonata,' too.
Readers interested in a technical discussion of the musical similarities between "Because" and "Moonlight Sonata" might enjoy Ian Hammond's essay on the subject from his Beathoven series.