I had the strange realization today that I’ve done a history video on Beethoven, but I never a corresponding “Music of Beethoven” post like I have with other composers.
So today is that day. Beethoven has written a bunch of the famous Classical songs everyone knows, and we’ll look at some of those. But what I want to do today is pick a piece from the major genres he wrote in, like so:
so we’ll be looking at 6 different pieces today. And since this is a piano channel, these examples of the music of Beethoven will lean in that direction (though not exclusively).
Beethoven history refresher
Just a 30-second refresher on Beethoven – obviously super-famous, but let’s go a little further than that. He was a Classical-era composer, meaning he was writing music in a similar vein to Mozart and Haydn. But Beethoven was younger than Mozart, and much younger than Haydn, meaning he was also instrumental in ushering in a new era of music. He took Classical music and led it in a Romantic direction (1800s) – so we refer to him as a transitional composer.
Beethoven is also the guy who famously went deaf, causing him much angst and strife (as you might imagine). His famous 9th symphony with the “Ode to Joy” chorus was written when he was completely deaf.
The Music of Beethoven: Sonatas
We’re going to start with some smaller categories, and work our way up the big guns – the concerto and symphony.
I’d like to start with a sonata, because these are written for just one instrument. And since this is a piano channel, of course we’ll be looking at a piano sonata, of which he wrote 32. He also wrote some good sonatas for violin and cello as well, but the bulk of his sonata output was for piano.
First of all, listen to all 32. They’re a ride – his early sonatas are Haydn and Mozart influenced, and his later sonatas are darker, more adventurous and abstract.
The one we’re going to listen to today is his 23rd piano sonata, nicknamed “Appassionata”. I chose this one for a few reasons. It was written in the middle of Beethoven’s career, so his style is developed, but it’s not as wild as some of his later compositions.
This sonata is extremely difficult, and rather stormy. It was written between 1804-05, and at that point, Beethoven knew he was going deaf. We’re going to listen to a bit from the first movement, a part that I find very thrilling and representative of the work, and all of Beethoven’s sonatas, as a whole.
Music of Beethoven: Trio
The next genre we’re going to talk about is the trio. A trio is what it sounds like – three instruments playing together. Beethoven wrote trios for strings and piano, but the problem with Beethoven’s trios is they just don’t see the spotlight very often. His quartets are extremely famous, and overshadow the trios.
Today we’re going to look at his op. 97 “Archduke” trio, written in 1810-11, close in time to the sonata we just listened to. He performed it himself in 1814 on piano (the other parts being violin and cello), but it was one of the last public performances he ever did, because his deafness was ruining his ability to perform – one of the worst fates imaginable to a composer and performer.
You can hear Beethoven’s beautiful melody writing skills, and the interesting, modern-at-the-time harmonies he chooses effortlessly.
Music of Beethoven: Quartet
And now we’re going to discuss the string quartet, one of the biggest genres of Beethoven’s career. He wrote 16 quartets, and the ones toward the end of his life completely transformed the genre – he made them longer, more complex, and more demanding of both the listener and performer.
I want to look at his op. 135 quartet today, specifically the final movement because it was the last complete composition he wrote before his death – it was written in 1826. At the same time, despite all of his health problems, and personal problems (like his nephew he cared for attempting suicide), this piece isn’t heavy and sprawling like some of his others.
The last movement is what we’ll be listening to today. It’s nicknamed the “must it be” movement, because of what Beethoven wrote in the manuscript. For the first part he wrote, “The difficult decision,” and then, “Must it be?” followed by “It must be!”
When we get to the “It must be” part, the mood of the piece becomes light and simple. I think it goes to show that, even when his life was falling apart, he was still able to find lightness and beauty – Beethoven wasn’t all darkness.
Music of Beethoven: Quintets
Beethoven wrote five string quintets (quintet = 5 instruments), and only one of them was full-scale. The reason I’m including this in our discussion today is that I think his quintet in C major, nicknamed “The Storm”, is an excellent example of early-to-mid Beethoven.
The finale presto is nicknamed “The Storm” because of all the tension created by tremolos (vibrating string sound), and the disjointed nature of the tune. There is also a fugue in the last movement, something that had fallen out of fashion at the end of the Baroque period, but some Classical composers re-integrated, like Beethoven and Mozart.
(A fugue is where you have more than one melody/tune happening at the same time, instead of the usual chords/melody arrangement – they are very complex).
Music of Beethoven: Concerto
And now for the big guns, starting with a Concerto. We’re going to listen to his 5th Piano Concerto, nicknamed “Emperor”, written in 1810-11. Concertos are fun because they feature one instrument (in this case, piano), and they’re usually extremely difficult – a show-off piece, if you will. But the featured instrument also plays along with a small orchestra.
This 5th concerto is his best-known, and features bold melodies, and was written during a time that the piano was being improved – they were louder and had better range and touch sensitivity. This concerto was also a favorite of Franz Liszt. In this Concerto, you can get a sense of the piano virtuosity required, as well as the bold, regal feel of the instrumentation.
Music of Beethoven: Symphony
And finally, our last Beethoven song to look at, one of his symphony, of which he wrote 9. All of them are famous, and are worth talking about here, but I think we should look at his fifth, nicknamed “Fate”. This is the one with the famous 8 opening notes.
This symphony premiered in 1808, and is considered one of the world’s greatest symphony – though it took a while for Beethoven’s audience to appreciate it.
Supposedly it is nicknamed “Fate” because, due to his increasing hearing loss, Beethoven wrote in a letter that he would “Seize fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely” – and this sentiment is represented in the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony. The whole th
One thing that you can hear in this symphony that Beethoven was a master at, was his ability to take a short motive (like the fate knocking motive), and naturally weave that into the rest of the song to unify it.
I hope you enjoyed this video/blog tour of the music of Beethoven – his catalogue is impressive and this barely scratches the surface. I encourage to check out all his piano sonatas – especially if you’re a pianist – and all 9 symphonies as well, as a starting point.