Beethoven (16 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) wrote some of the most physically and spiritually exhilarating music in existence. He was the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras 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. Here are ten of the best Beethoven works including symphony, concerto, opera, string quartet and piano sonata masterpieces from the legendary composer.
Best Beethoven Works: 10 Essential Pieces By The Great Composer
Symphony No.3 In E Flat, Op.55 – Eroica
This symphony, completed in 1804, changed the musical world and is perhaps Beethoven’s defining work. 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.
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, and is 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 and one of the best Beethoven works.
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 and one of the best Beethoven works.
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.
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.
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. Though 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, certainly the most popular of all violin concertos, and one of the best Beethoven works. 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. The Fantasy 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 poem about the power of art before the choir comes in to round the whole thing off in a triumphant whirlwind.