Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the most important composers of the modern era, bridging the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. His compositions are even more impressive in light of his hearing loss. These 15 pieces are considered some of the best of his career out of his more than 700 compositions.
1. Archduke Trio
The Archduke Trio, or Piano Trio in B-flat major, is one of Beethoven’s piano trios, completed in 1811. He dedicated the composition to Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Rudolf was one of Beethoven’s friends and patrons and himself an amateur pianist.
Written in Beethoven’s middle period, he drafted it in the summer of 1810 and completed it the following March. It has a traditional four-movement structure. The first movement has a sonata form while the last movement uses a rondo sonata. The piano plays a more prominent part than in other compositions.
2. Piano Concerto no. 5 “Emperor Concerto”
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, or the Emperor Concerto, was composed for orchestra and piano. Because of his declining hearing, Beethoven was unable to perform, despite being the usual soloist.
The piece starts with a solo entrance without an orchestral introduction, creating a distinct relationship between orchestra and piano as the concerto continues. Its first movement, Allego, is a sonata form and longer than any of Beethoven’s earlier piano concerto opening movements.
3. Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight Sonata”
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor was completed in 1801. He dedicated the work to his student, Countess Guicciardi. It is popularly nicknamed Moonlight Sonata, a reference to a criticism leveled after Beethoven died. Piano Sonata No. 14 remains one of Beethoven’s most enduring piano compositions.
The piece was one of his most popular even while he was alive. He wrote the piece in his early thirties after finishing commissioned work. However, no evidence exists to suggest he was ever commissioned for Piano Sonata No. 14. The sonata holds off its more rapid music until the third movement, distinct from the traditional arrangement of the time.
4. Grosse Fuge “Great Fugue”
Beethoven’s Great Fugue is a single-movement composition for a string quartet. The piece is an immense double fugue that was universally loathed by Beethoven’s contemporary critics. Critical opinion of the Great Fugue has improved over time, especially since the early 20th century. Many now consider it one of Beethoven’s greatest compositions. He was almost entirely deaf when he composed it.
5. Symphony No. 9 “Ode to joy”
Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 9 in D minor as a choral symphony. It was his final complete symphony before he died. Beethoven composed the piece between 1822 and 1824. The composition was first performed in Vienna in May 1824. Many critics regard Symphony No. 9 as Beethoven’s greatest composition. It is also held to be one of the greatest musical achievements in world history.
Symphony No. 9 is one of the best-known common practice music works. It is still one of the most frequently performed symphonies globally.
6. Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer Sonata”
Beethoven wore his Violin Sonata No. 9, commonly known as the Kreutzer Sonata, in 1803. The piece is notable for its technical difficulty and the unusual length of about 40 minutes.
Beethoven originally composed the final movement of the work for another sonata for violin and piano. He did not designate a key to the piece. It is usually titled as A major, though some scholars argue the main key is A minor. The sonata was originally dedicated to a friend, but Beethoven had an argument with him shortly before its completion and instead dedicated it to Rudolphe Kreutzer, the most accomplished violinist of the era. It was this dedication that led to its more common name; ironically, Kreutzer never performed it.
7. String Quartet No. 15
Beethoven wrote String Quartet No. 15 in A minor in 1825. Dedicated to Count Nikolai Galitzen, this piece is traditionally numbered based on its publication order. Nevertheless, it is actually Beethoven’s 13th quartet in chronological order.
The quartet has five movements and takes about 45 minutes. It possesses an unusual structure that continues to puzzle critics. The piece was reportedly well-received by audiences of the time. It may have also served as the impetus for T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point refers to it extensively.
8. Missa Solemnis
Beethoven composed the Missa Solemnis in D major between 1819 and 1823. It was first performed in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Beethoven also conducted an incomplete performance consisting of the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei a few months later. Many critics consider it to be one of Beethoven’s greatest musical achievements.
Beethoven wrote this composition at about the same time as his Ninth Symphony. He dedicated the composition to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, his patron, student, and friend.
9. Piano Sonata no. 29 “Hammerklavier”
Considered to be Beethoven’s most technically challenging piano piece, the Hammerklavier is also one of the most demanding solo works in classical piano. The Piano Sonata No. 29 or Hammerklavier is also held to be one of the best piano sonatas in history. It was first performed in 1836, about nine years after the composer’s death.
It is now considered one of the most important compositions of Beethoven’s third period. He dedicated the work to his patron, Archduke Rudolf. It features the reinvention of traditional forms and hearkens back to pre-classical compositions.
10. Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major between 1805 and 1806. He was the soloist for the public premiere during a concert in 1808, held at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. However, it was first performed at a private concert at Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz’s home. During this same private concert, Beethoven also premiered the Fourth Symphony and the Coriolan Overture.
Beethoven scored the concerto for a solo piano and orchestra made up of two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two bassoons, two trumpets, strings, timpani, and a flute. The piece is considered one of Beethoven’s most complex concertos by many critics.
11. Piano Sonata no. 21 “Waldstein Sonata”
The Piano Sonata No. 21 or Waldstein Piano Sonata is one of Beethoven’s three most notable sonatas from his middle period. He completed the piece in 1804 and highly surpassed the scope of his previous piano sonatas. It is considered a key early work of his “heroic” decade from 1803 to 1812.
Beethoven dedicated the piece to his close friend, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein, from whom it gets its nickname. It is also sometimes known as The Dawn (L’Aurora) because of the sonority of the third movement’s opening chords; many people have described it as evoking images of dawn breaking over the horizon.
Fidelio (titled by the composer Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love) is Beethoven’s singular opera. The German libretto was prepared by Joseph Sonnleithner. The piece premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Ravenna in 1805. The libretto uses song and spoken dialogue to tell of Leonore. Leonore rescues political prisoner Florestan, her husband, from death while disguised as a prison guard.
This piece tells of heroic sacrifice and triumph in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Its themes of struggling for justice and striving for freedom reflect contemporary European political movements. These topics are notable throughout works from Beethoven’s middle period.
13. Violin Concerto
Beethoven wrote his Violin Concerto in D major in 1806. The piece was first performed by Franz Clement. It remained unsuccessful for a few decades until a revival in 1844. Twelve-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim performed it with the London Philharmonic Society’s orchestra (conducted by Felix Mendelssohn). The violinist proclaimed it the greatest German violin concerto of all time. It is one of the most well-known and widely performed violin concertos around the world.
14. Piano Sonata No. 8 “Sonata Pathetique”
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, called the Sonata Pathetique, was composed in 1798. Beethoven was only 27 years old when he produced it. It is still one of his most popular compositions today. Beethoven dedicated Sonata Pathetique to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky but it was actually named by his publisher. Musicologists debate whether it was inspired by Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 457 because both have three highly similar movements in C minor. It also has notable similarities with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, which features declamatory fanfare.
15. Symphony No. 3 “Sinfonia Eroica”
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 or Sinfonia Eroica is a symphony in four movements written in 1802-1804. It is one of the composer’s most highly appraised works. Symphony No. 3 is a large-scale composition that foreshadowed Beethoven’s highly innovative middle period.
Beethoven broke the boundaries of the time in length, harmony, symphonic form, and emotional and cultural depth. Many critics also consider the Eroica a major transition piece between Classical and Romantic music or even the first Romantic symphony. The piece is scored for two clarinets, two oboes, two flutes, two bassoons, two trumpets, three horns, timpani, and strings.
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