Beethoven's Greatest Works
Ludwig van Beethoven was responsible for some of the most physically and spiritually exhilarating music in existence. Here we pick the standout symphonies, sonatas and concertos of an iconic genius who blazed a trail for the Romantic era.
(1770 - 1827)
Early Life and Career
Beethoven wrote some of the most physically and spiritually exhilarating music in existence. His work is the essence of classical music and despite suffering far reaching medical and emotional torments (he became completely deaf by the age of 40) his music is a testament to the human spirit in the face of cruel misfortune - there is the sheer joy in the finale of the Seventh Symphony and the slow movements of his late works seem to convey a serenity quite at odds with the troubled persona of a lonely individual. Beethoven issued a challenge to the future that is still felt whenever a composer sets out to write a new sonata, quartet or symphony. Even his name has acquired a monumental stature in our culture.
Beethoven was born in the Rhinelands in western Germany. His father was a court musician who had hopes of making money by exploiting his son as a child prodigy. He was also an alcoholic, and by his mid-teens Beethoven junior had taken over as breadwinner and head of the household. Fortunately the child's talent was great enough for teachers and members of the court circle to intervene. It was they who set him on a more secure career path. At the time, Vienna was the place where any German or Austrian musician had to go to acquire a reputation, and the inevitable move came in 1792, a year after Mozart's death.
Beethoven had previously visited Mozart in Vienna and had once hoped to study composition with him. Instead, he was taught by Haydn, whose tolerant nature would have been a considerable asset, though the two rarely saw eye to eye. Beethoven lacked the social graces that would have made life smoother for him, but he was tough enough to survive. He did his best to link up with wealthy and noble patrons, and also latched on to the virtuoso instrumentalists of the day, writing showpieces for them and acting as accompanist on their tours. Works such as the Horn Sonata and the sets of variations for cello and piano reflect the haste of their composition, but they were written for immediate effect, not posterity. The intentions of Beethoven's Symphony no.1 were completely different. It was first heard at a concert arranged by the composer himself in Vienna in 1800. Built on the models of Haydn or Mozart, it is noticeably more robust in temperament and more sustained in intensity than either man's work.
Beethoven was no natural when it came to opera – too high-minded and too idealistic for the grubby world of drama and the shades of human motivation – but Fidelio, his only effort in the genre, has astonishing, blazing periods that more than compensate for its patchy moments. The early quartet 'Mir ist so wunderbar' is an amazing thing... a stately canon that achieves a sense of perpetual motion and complete stasis as the singers’ music weaves about – the first moment in the opera that hints at the transcendence to come. It has been noted that only a single fellow could possibly write such an unequivocal paean to the joys of marriage as Fidelio.
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 'Eroica'
Completed in 1804, this work changed the musical world and is perhaps Beethoven’s defining piece. At a stroke, orchestral music moves into another dimension, with a breadth of conception and emotional freight and range beyond anything previously dreamed of; the exact concision and Classical symmetry of Mozart is left behind. It was originally dedicated to Napoleon – a dedication Beethoven removed in a rage on hearing he had made himself Emperor. What Beethoven did here was to understand the possibilities of the sonata form and thematic development, and then revel in his freedom. The last movement is a particularly clever jigsaw of themes, but hearing the piece as a whole is like arriving at the top of a mountain and seeing a new continent.
String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131
The quartet is the most personal of compositions; it is music reduced to its absolute fundamentals, with four players in quasi-spontaneous interaction. Beethoven’s last quartets are an extreme form: far from easy listening and incredibly intense; a kind of conversation with God. This was the composer's own favourite, and the music Schubert wanted to hear on his deathbed. It took Beethoven a lifetime to be able to write this, so don’t expect to get it on first hearing – keep at it, however, and its logic and truthfulness will soon dawn. There are seven movements, played without a break, with moments of almost complete musical stasis and other instances that sound as though Bach has been reincarnated. Moods arise and float away… it is ungraspable, but one knows it’s right.
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major
The 'Emperor Concerto' was not so-named by Beethoven, but it has majesty to spare, with an expansive surface and overwhelmingly major-key feel (disguising much harmonic and thematic intensity) that makes it a great showpiece for the soloist. Starting with three chords that expand into a flourish of mini cadenzas, it ends with a triumphant, vaulting Rondo that gallops towards a joyful end. These frame a slow movement that is one of Beethoven’s most rapt creations; a serene hymn with the piano rhapsodising dreamily along. It’s a muscular piece, happily devoid of anguish but hardly of depth – a great and easy introduction to what Beethoven was all about.
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, the last three being a trilogy that belong together. The first of the three, No.30 in E, is one of the loveliest things he wrote; rather shorter than some of its predecessors, with a crystalline surface hiding great mysteries and intricacies of form and harmony. The short first two movements – the former emerges out of what sounds like gently tinkling raindrops – are just a prelude to the last: a chorale-like theme (and variations) that covers all of the ground between Bach and Chopin, before spinning itself into a delirium of ecstasy that subsides back into the theme with a blessed sense of homecoming. It is 20 minutes of the most sustained musical rapture you could imagine.
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
This is a sunny piece, and its premiere, at a concert for soldiers wounded at the 1813 Battle of Hanau, was auspicious – it sounds like a celebration at the end of the nightmare of war. It is all momentum: there is no slow movement, but a half-playful, half-solemn Allegretto that brilliantly combines separate melodies and rhythms into a typically profound whole, leading to the bouncy final movements – increasingly lively and impetuous – that led Wagner to call the symphony 'the apotheosis of the dance'. The way the themes melt into restful woodwind interludes is particularly gorgeous.
Coriolan Overture, Op.62
The Coriolan Overture is a brilliantly intense, dark and concentrated piece – jagged string chords driven on by relentless, driving quaver figures in the bass – written for a play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin about the Roman leader Coriolanus. In a sense it is programmatic, reflecting the play’s action as Coriolanus resolves to invade Rome and is entreated by his mother not to (he eventually kills himself). But you can listen without knowing anything about the play, as this is pure Beethoven wrestling with the elements. Coriolan was premiered at what must have been one of history’s most amazing concerts, which also saw the first airings of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto.
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Written double-quick in the middle of an immensely creative period, the Violin Concerto in D – Beethoven’s most consistently lyrical work – allowed him to express pure musical serenity while his more intense side was coming out in compositions like the Coriolan Overture. Although it was a failure at its premiere (it was not performed again until Joseph Joachim rediscovered it in 1844), now it is one of Beethoven’s most popular pieces and certainly the most popular of all violin concertos. It is really a 40-minute outpouring of untroubled melody, its very typical moments of harmonic and dynamic surprise in the orchestra hardly affecting the surface. The second movement is one of Beethoven's most utterly limpid creations.
Violin Sonata No.9, Op.47 'Kreutzer Sonata'
We should remember that Beethoven’s composing life didn’t begin with 'Eroica'; in fact, had he died in 1803, we would still consider him a great. This sonata was written a few months before the Third Symphony, and, like many of the works around this period, shows a great, restless striving. The first movement battles between an anguished minor-key theme and a typically hymn-like interlude; the second is a sunny, placid theme and variations; while the last is a jovial tarantella. The work lasts about twice as long as any previous sonata, allowing great depth of musical and emotional development – and it’s very hard to play.
Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op.80
This jaunty, early dry-run for the Ninth Symphony ('Choral Symphony') may not be the most profound thing Beethoven wrote, but it certainly goes with a swing and has a marvellous impetus; in fact, not being the overblown Ninth is one of the great things about it. It starts with an extended piano improvisation (at least, Beethoven improvised at the disastrous premiere), before ushering in a set of piano and orchestra variations on a theme that are remarkably similar to the last movement of the Choral Symphony; singers then join in to rush through the first verses of a so-so poem about the power of art before the choir comes in to round the whole thing off in a triumphant whirlwind.
Orchestral and Piano Works
Symphonies of this time began firmly and securely in the home key. Beethoven's, however, opens with a sequence of dissonances. They resolve, but in doing so take us not towards home, but away from it. The rules aren't completely broken, but they are stretched and thoroughly interrogated. It is a bold gesture, and serves as a metaphor for Beethoven's entire attitude. His first and second symphonies teased convention, but the third, the 'Eroica' (1805), was truly revolutionary. The score was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, then leader of the French Revolution. The symphony begins with hammer blows and strenuous, determined aspiration. It progresses through funeral music for a single hero to the ennoblement of a country dance - the heroism of the masses, perhaps. Bonaparte himself was seen as a heroic liberator of the people until he anointed himself emperor of France. Beethoven expressed his disillusionment by angrily scrubbing the dedication from his symphony's title page. Social concerns apart, the music of the 'Eroica' represents a massive leap from Classicism to Romanticism. The main melody of the first movement only falls into its expected Classical phrases in the very closing bars. First come the transformations and adventures of a massively expanded development and coda. Discords and buffeting accents abound. Wind and brass are often prominent. Two horns were normal for the time - Beethoven adds a third, greatly increasing the presence of the brass.
It was not just in his orchestral music that Beethoven repeatedly broke new ground. The 32 piano sonatas, which he wrote in bursts throughout his career, experiment with form in all directions, using the full expressive range of an instrument that was itself changing rapidly, growing louder and with an ever greater range of notes. Despite this constant revolution, increasingly integrated melodic material holds the sonatas together. Beethoven's most visionary music occurs in the string quartets that he wrote in his last decade. Their harmonic language lies at the outer reaches of their time. Their melodies are in a state of constant transformation - form and content are now inextricably linked. The Grosse Fuge, op.133, originally intended as the finale to the op.130 quartet, sees Beethoven's passionate self-expression grappling with the rules of strict counterpoint. Neither side compromises and order is taken to the brink of chaos. Few contemporary listeners could comprehend music like this. Yet in his lifetime Beethoven was widely recognised as a genius. Although he resented the servitude that was the usual lot of musicians, his father included, he could not afford to be a total rebel. But instead of being his masters, the princes, countesses and archdukes who funded his career were his music pupils and very often his friends.
A Bumpy Life
From 1809 onwards, Beethoven was able to function as an independent artist, a mark of the value placed upon him by those with influence. He was given an annual financial grant by a group of his wealthy associates and patrons, on the condition that he remained in Vienna. The status quo hadn't changed, but Beethoven was free to write according to his inspiration rather than for court or Church. In his maturity, he produced works in every genre that opened up new horizons and have remained at the heart of the repertoire. No one before had written concertos as spacious as the Violin Concerto or Fifth Piano Concerto. His single opera, Fidelio, dates from the heady days of revolutionary idealism, but its cry for freedom has echoed through the centuries. The Missa Solemnis continues to beguile listeners with its curious mixture of celestial and Earthly music, while the Ninth Symphony, with its audacious introduction of voices, remains the supreme work with which to commemorate and dedicate great events.
Life never became easy for Beethoven. The annual grant of 4,000 florins was not sufficient to cover his losses on public concerts. His boorishness led to frequent quarrels and prevented any long-term relationship with a woman. His deafness became noticeable before he was 30 and was total within eight years. This was a deep psychological blow and an immense obstacle to his profession. But it was only one of a series of illnesses that led to his death at the age of 56. His influence can be heard in the music of composers from Schubert to Berlioz, Brahms to Mahler. No composer confronted difficulty with greater fortitude, or triumphed over it with more certainty and energy. At the start of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, fate knocks thunderously at the door. But who can doubt that the work will end defiantly in a blaze of affirmation?