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Ludwig van Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven is considered by many to be the most influential composer in Western Classical Music. One musicologist called him “humanity’s greatest mind.” His musical creations stand along side Shakespeare’s characters as iconic of many aspects of the human character.
Family History

  • Born in Bonn, Germany (1770-1827). His family is of Flemish origin.

  • Father (Johann van Beethoven, 1740-1792) was a tenor at the Court, and was an alcoholic. His grandfather was the Kapellmeister.

  • Mother (Magdalena Keverich van Beethoven, 1744-1787) suffered from depression.

  • Birth date is assumed to be December 16. He was baptized on December 17.

  • Beethoven had three brothers. Ludwig Maria preceded him in birth order and died in infancy. Other family members include Nikolaus Johann (brother), Theresa (sister-in-law), Caspar Carl (brother), and Johanna (sister-in-law), Karl (nephew).

Important Works

  • Nine symphonies

  • Five piano concertos

  • Violin concerto and Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra

  • Thirty-two piano sonatas (among them Pathetique, Moonlight, Appassionata, Waldstein, Hammerklavier, Les Adieux)

  • Sixteen string quartets

  • One opera (Fidelio, revised three times)

  • Missa Solemnis and other masses and choral works

  • Ballet Prometheus

Beethoven’s creative life can be divided into periods as follows:

  • Birth in 1770 in Bonn

  • Bonn Years (1770-92, divided into 1770-85, pause from 1786-89, then 1790-92). The pause from 1786-89 can be associated with the death of his mother in 1787, the father’s increased drinking and decline, and Beethoven’s petitioning the Elector for ½ his father’s salary in order to become head of the family in 1789).

  • Early Vienna Years (1792-99, 1800-1802). Beethoven met Haydn in 1792 in Bonn and, with Count Waldstein’s support, moved to Vienna.

  • First Crisis—Heiligenstadt Testament (1802)

  • Middle Period (1803-1809, 1809-17), with the years 1812-16 of relatively low productivity.

  • Second Crisis—custody of Karl, starting in 1815.

  • Late Period (1818-20, 1820-1826). Karl attempted suicide in 1826.

  • Death in 1827

A simplified, three-period division could be seen as:

  • First period—1770-1802. Birth in Bonn through the Heiligenstadt Testament.

  • Second period—1803-1817. Commencement of writing the Third Symphony through guardianship of Karl, a period of stagnation and the beginning of recovery.

  • Third period—1818-1827. Writing of the Hammerklavier Sonata, resignation to deafness, late works, Karl’s suicide attempt, and death.

General Period Notes
Bonn Years

  • Johann Beethoven believed that Ludwig had the potential to become a Wunderkind pianist as Mozart had been. Beethoven was exploited as child but Johann’s plans never materialized.

  • Beethoven studied with Christian Gottlob Neefe and sponsored by the Prince Elector of Bonn.

  • In 1787, Beethoven visited Vienna and met Mozart. The visit was cut short by the death of his mother.

  • Upon the death of his mother, when Beethoven was 18, Johann’s drinking increased and Beethoven took over responsibilities for his youth siblings.

  • Some works from this period as designated with WoO numbers (werke ohne Opus) including a set of variations and three piano sonatas, the “Elector” sonatas. These early works are often in the empfindsamer Stil. Not all WoO works are early works.

Early Viennese Years—Beethoven:

  • Met Haydn in Bonn in 1792.

  • Moved to Vienna permanently that year, studying first with Haydn and later with Johann Albrechtsberger (counterpoint) and Salieri (text setting).

  • Established himself first as a piano virtuoso, frequently appearing in homes of wealthy aristocrats in post-French Revolutionary Vienna.

  • Worked outside the patronage system as a composer, rather than seek a position at a Court or with the Church. He sought and received commissions from patrons to whom he dedicates the works.

  • Works from this period include lieder (songs), twenty piano sonatas (including the Op. 2 set (gallant style), Op. 7, Op. 13—Pathetique, les Adieux, and Op.27 set, including Moonlight) three violin/piano sonatas, two cello/piano sonatas, two piano concerti, and three piano trios. NB: high concentration of works for piano. Other works include six string quartets, two symphonies, “social” music, and the ballet Geschoepfe des Prometheus which will provide source material for the 3rd symphony.


  • Problems with hearing emerge before the turn of the 19th century (ca. 1798)

  • Causes of deafness have been variously postulated as lead poisoning (from water, wine barrels, etc.), and systemic lupus erythematosus (an auto-immune disease), syphilis (not true—there were no elevated levels of mercury in his hair strands—mercury being the common treatment for syphilis), and other diseases. Difficult to diagnose posthumously. He died of renal failure and jaundice.

  • Works such as the early piano sonatas, first and second piano concerti and first symphony come from the 1798-1802 period.

  • Contemplates suicide. At Heiligenstadt, a spa to which Beethoven retreated in 1802 on doctor’s orders, he contemplates suicide in a letter to his brothers, known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”. Decides on committing his life to music. His fears are social, not musical.

Middle or Heroic Period

  • Dated by scholars as ending around 1816-18.

  • Heroic is not a sufficiently encompassing word to describe music of this period, since many works are not in the “Heroic” style

  • Period commences with Symphony No. 2 in 1803 (shows unrest with Classical procedures), Piano Concerto No. 3, also 1803 (heroic style more in evidence) and Symphony No. 3 Eroica (also 1803, quintessential Heroic work).

  • Other Heroic style works include symphonies 5 and 7, piano concerti 4 and 5, the opera Fidelio, and seven piano sonatas (nos. 21-27), beginning with the Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53.

  • Works from this period which are NOT in the Heroic style include symphonies 4 and 6, Triple Concerto, etc.

  • In 1809, Beethoven was given a “lifetime annuity” guaranteed by several noblemen. With the decline in the economy and the personal misfortunes or some of them, this cause him to experience financial difficulties, later.


  • Around 1812, Beethoven recognizes that he will never marry

  • With the death of Caspar Carl precipitates a second crisis in Beethoven’s life

  • Custody battle over Carl commences with Caspar Carl’s death in 1815

Late Period

  • Beethoven resumes more active composition

  • Works from the late period include the last five piano sonatas, last six string quartets (esp. the C# Minor Quartet), the Ninth Symphony, and Missa Solemnis.

  • Carl attempted suicide in 1826, which is devastating to Beethoven

Major works by genre:
Symphony No. 1 in C major (1799-1800)

  • Dedicated to Baron von Swieten

  • Four movements

  • Starts out-of-key

  • First and last movements in sonata form with introductions

  • Third movement is a scherzo (fast ¾ movement)

Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1801-1802)

  • Dedicated to Prince Lichnowky

  • Four movements. First movement has an extensive introduction

  • Second movement in a remote key (E Major)

  • Third movement scherzo considered shocking and has a “dragon’s tail” in it (early review)

  • Finale based on a theme by CPE Bach

Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Eroica (1803-04)

  • Dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz

  • Four movements

  • First Beethoven symphony with a descriptive name (originally named for Napoleon, later removed from title page)

  • First movement has NO introduction (except two staccato chords)

  • First movement is of unprecedented length (nearly 20 minutes and almost as long as some Haydn or Mozart symphonies). Theme evolves from an asymmetrical phrase based on a triad in E-flat with a disrupting C#, to a balanced phrase. Middle of movement has a famously dissonant chord in it. Also, uses syncopation

  • Second movement is a gigantic ABA funeral march, linking the work with Revolutionary France. The solemn processional theme has drum rolls in the lower strings.

  • Third movement, scherzo

  • Finale, a set of variations on a theme which Beethoven used twice before, most notably in the Ballet Prometheus

Symphonies nos. 4-6 were composed between 1804-1808.

Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat (1806)

  • Dedicated to Count Oppensdorff. He paid 500 florins for the first performance rights.

  • Four movements

  • First movement has an extensive introduction

  • In general, this symphony is of more classical proportions, including the use of only one flute

  • Slow movement is presumed to be a “love-letter” to Theresa von Brunswick.

  • Scherzo is the first to employ the ABABA (so-called double-trio) form

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (1804-05, 1807-08)

  • Dedicated to Counts Lobkowitz and Razumovsky

  • Four movements

  • Earliest sketches for this work date from 1780s, when Beethoven was still in Bonn!

  • First performed at the legendary “Monster Concert” of December 22, 1808, along with 4th piano concerto, sixth symphony, three movements of the C Major Mass, the concert aria “Ah, perfido” and the Chorale Fantasy (concert lasted four hours). This was the most hectic period in the composer’s life. He played both the concerto and the Choral Fantasy on the concert.

  • Symphony marks a turning point in the history of music criticism: a review by E.T.A. Hoffmann gave musical analysis a decisive role in determining the importance of a work.

  • First movement: unprecedented concentration on a single motif (short-short-short-long)

  • Second Movement: Double Variations (variations on two themes in a hybrid form)

  • Scherzo was originally an ABABA, but Beethoven cut one repeat as a concession to the orchestra, which was under rehearsed. Beethoven failed to notice the error in the printed score for almost a year.

  • Finale: Sonata form of large proportions, including repeat of exposition.

  • The symphony marks Beethoven’s most successful endeavor (to date) in integrating the four movements, which are unified by modulatory procedures, and the short-short-short-long motive. All movements revolve around modulations to C major from C minor, A-flat Major, etc. Further, the scherzo is linked by a bridge passage directly to the finale, and the scherzo’s theme and the bridge passage return within the finale to further connect the movements.

Symphony No, 6 in F Major (1807-1808)

  • Dedicated to Counts Lobkowitz and Razumovsky

  • Five Movements

  • Earliest sketches from 1803. Premiered with 5th Symphony on the 1808 concert.

  • Entitled by Beethoven Pastoral-Sinfonie

  • Work on the symphony was put aside several times

  • Full program inscription:

Sinfonia Pastorella/Pastoral Symphony—Recollection of Country Life

(More the expression of feeling than a painting)

  1. Agreeable, cheerful feelings which awaken as one arrives in the country

  2. Scene by the brook

  3. Merry gathering of the country folk (Scherzo is in ¾ while the trio is in 2/4

  4. Thunder, storm

  5. Shepherd’s Song: charitable feelings, together with thanks to the Divinity, after the Storm

Symphony No. 7 in A Major (1811-12)

  • Dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries

  • Four Movements

  • Composed after returning from the spa at Telpitz

  • Called the Apotheosis of the Dance by Richard Wagner

  • First movement has an extended introduction (first introduction since Symphony No. 4)

  • Slow movement is a hybrid form (part variation set, part rondo)

  • Scherzo is an ABABA form with coda

  • Symphony was a success from the premiere and is one of Beethoven’s most popular symphonies. The slow movement was encored in the middle of the performance.

Symphony No. 8 in F Major (1812)

  • No dedication

  • “Neo-classical” symphony. A “conservative” symphony, compared to its predecessors, although it’s truncation of form is notworthy.

  • The canon which is the basis of the slow movement was attributed to an earlier canon by Beethoven which he supposedly wrote for Maezel (the inventor of the metronome). The story, fabricated by Schindler, has been discredited.

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1812-1822, primarily 1823-24)

  • Dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia

  • Idea materialized during composition of 7th and 8th symphonies

  • Earliest idea of setting the Ode to Joy dates from 1793, in a reference to the project by Fischenich to Schiller’s wife. There are sketches for an Ode theme in the sketch books of 1798-99. The sketchbook of 1815-16 has the scherzo theme in it. By 1817-18, ideas for the symphony appear mixed in with sketches for the Hammerklavier sonata. Also, the idea of formal plan which included a choral finale appeared.

  • Between 1818-1822, Beethoven worked on the Missa Solemnis and the Diabelli Variations (an important work for piano).

  • Work on the 9th symphony proceeded uninterrupted after 1823.

  • Premiere was a resounding success

  • Four movements, all of gigantic scope, by contemporary standards

  • First movement: Sonata form with distant key for the second theme group

  • Second Movement: Scherzo. Beethoven repositions the scherzo. ABABA form

  • Third Movement: Double Variation form on two themes.

  • Finale: Gigantic hybrid variation form with an extensive introduction followed by variations in a variety of keys and tempi which emulate the pattern of the entire symphony (Allegro—Scherzo—Slow Variations—Final Variations—Coda). Movement can be viewed as: 1) a set of variations, 2) a sonata form with introduction (Schreckenfanfare), exposition (variations on the Ode theme), development (Turkish march and Adagio section on a new theme associated with the words “Seid umschlungen”), recapitulation (return of Ode theme in a fugal treatment with the new theme) and coda (presto on the Ode theme), a one-movement symphony in which the Ode variations equal the first movement, the Turkish March the second movement, the Adagio variations the third movement, and the fugal variations the finale.

  • Beethoven uses THEMATIC TRANSFORMATION and REOCCURANCE to a greater extent in this symphony than in any other symphony. For example, the “Ode” theme is presaged in every movement (2nd theme of first movement, trio theme in the Scherzo, 2nd theme in the Adagio movement). The introduction to the finale also recalls all of the major themes of the first three movements. The process was used in the 5th symphony, but carried to its logical completion, here.

  • Beethoven attempted to conduct the premiere, although he was deaf. A second conductor was used. The contralto Fraulein Unger had to turn Beethoven around to see the applause.

  • The significance of this story is often overlooked: Beethoven was still conducting when the orchestra finished; therefore, his sense of the tempo was slower than what conductor (presumably following Beethoven’s verbal directions on tempo) was doing.

5 Concertos, 1 Violin Concerto, “Triple Concerto”
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15

  • Published 1801, composed and first performed in 1798

  • Later, revised

  • 1st movement has a extensive orchestral exposition and with martial themes

  • Slow movement in distant key (A-flat Major)

  • Finale is a rondo.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19

  • Published in 1801, composed before the C Major concerto

  • Both nos. 1 and 2 were preceded by an unnumbered concerto written in1784, not and published until 1890. Therefore, No. 2 is actually No. 1.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37

  • Original MS dated 1800

  • Dedicated to “Prince Louis Ferdinand de Prusse”

  • First performance with the composer at the piano in 1803. Later than year, performed with Ferdinand Ries at the keyboard and the composer conducting

  • !st movement has an extensive orchestral exposition

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

  • Composed 1805-06

  • Dedicated to Archduke Rudolf

  • First performed in 1807 at Lobkowitz’s Palace, the solo part being played by the composer

  • Included on the “Monster Concert” of 1808

  • The concerto begins with the soloist. The orchestra commences at m. 6 in a remote key, but modulates quickly to the tonic for the beginning of the orchestral exposition proper.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73

  • Composed 1809-10

  • Dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf

  • The soloist enters after a single chord from the orchestra. There a numerous stories about performances with great pianists such as Rubinstein or Schnabel in which the confusion between which of the last three concertos was being played led to humorous confusion on stage and either delayed beginnings, or “emergency” entrances

  • Beethoven never performed this concerto in public, indicating that by 1810, Beethoven’s hearing was too deteriorated for him to be able to perform a concerto in public.

  • First performance by Friedrich Schneider, soon thereafter by Karl Czerny.

“Triple Concerto” in C Major for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra, Op. 56

  • Composed 1803-04

  • Dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz

  • Written for the Archduke Rudolf of Austria, who was an amateur pianist and Beethoven’s pupil. The piano part is, therefore, relatively easy. The violin and cello parts, written for the violinist Seidler and the cellist Anton Kraft, who were in the service of the Archduke, are difficult.

  • The so-called Leonore sketchbook of 1804 has numerous drafts of this work

  • The outer movements are in the tonic key; the slow movement—a gracious and charming although short movement—is in the remote key of A-flat Major

  • The work is in concertante style, and continues the tradition which was in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th century. Other examples include JS Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no. 5, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, and Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello, Oboe and Bassoon.

Violin Concerto, Op. 61

  • Written in 1806 for (and dedicated to) Franz Clement the Viennese violinist/conductor. The dedicated includes this play on words: “Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement primo Violini e direttore al theatro a Vienna.”

  • At the urging of the publisher Clementi, Beethoven also produced an arrangement of the work for piano, which is ignored by pianists today.

  • There are numerous textual problems with the violin part, stemming from the haste with which the work was prepared for publication.

  • The work was not an immediate success; however, when it was taken up by the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim in 1844 its greatness was recognized. This performance was given by the then 13-year old Joachim in London under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.

1 Opera--Fidelio

  • Composed in 1803-04, immediately after the Eroica symphony

  • Based on the French Revolutionary-era opera Leonore: ou, L’Amour conjugal

  • First performance in November, 1805 after French took Vienna

  • Shortened to two acts and performed in March, 1806

  • Third version in 1814 with extensive revisions

11 Overtures
The Creatures of Prometheus

  • Ballet music, a theme from which became the principal theme of the finale of the Third Symphony

  • Composed 1800-01; contemporaneous to 1st Symphony, written for a ballet devised by Salvatore Vigano

  • Overture is filled with highs spirits; Beethoven ignored Prometheus’s suffering

Overtures, Leonore, nos. 1 (Op. 138, written 1807), nos. 2 and 3, (Op. 72a and 72b, written 1805-1806), all three written for the opera Fidelio

  • The premiere of Fidelio (1805) coincided with the French invasion of Vienna

  • Opera was revived in 1806,and again in 1814—see Fidelio Overture

  • Of the 3 Lenore overtures, no. 3 is the most famous and longest; it refers to major characters and scenes of the opera, including Florestan’s imprisonment, Leonore’s theme, and the arrival of the Governor, heralded by the trumpet

Coriolan, Op. 62.

  • Composed in 1807; contemporaneous to 4th Piano Concerto

  • Inspired by a play by his friend Heinrich von Collin, which based on Shakespeare

  • A concert overture, not incidental music to a play

Egmont Overture, Op. 84

  • written as part of the incidental music for the play by Goethe

  • composed in 1809-10

  • Beethoven wrote the music partly as a tribute to Goethe, who he had not yet met

  • Goethe consider the minor chord to be an expression of man’s highest qualities of invention (since it does not occur in Nature)—the overture is in F Minor

  • The “Victory Symphony” which forms the coda of the work comes directly from the incidental music

Ruins of Athens Overture, Op. 113 (1811)—Overture to a play, with incidental music

Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91, (1813)

  • Possibly Beethoven’s worst piece, premiered on concert with 7th Symphony

  • The Battle of Waterloo was staged in front of the orchestra to this work

Fidelio Overture, Op. 72c (1814)

  • Overture written for the last revision of the opera Fidelio, in 1814

  • Has little direct reference to the opera

Late Overtures, rarely played in the standard concert repertoire

  • King Stephen Overture, Op. 117 (1811)

  • Overture Namenfeuer, Op. 115 (1815)

  • Consecration of the House, Op. 124 (1822)

16 String Quartets
Early Vienna Period:

  • Opus 18: Six String Quartets (1800)

Middle Period:

  • Opus 59: Three "Rasumovsky" String Quartets (1806). Rasumovsky was the Russian ambassador to Vienna and an amateur musician. There is a Russian theme in the finale to the 1st quartet and another in the 3rd movement of the 2nd quartet. The musicians thought Beethoven was playing a joke on them because of the 1-, 2- and 3- note pedal points, frequent changes in texture, imitations, etc.

  • Opus 74: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major "Harp" (1809)

  • Opus 95: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor "Serioso" (1810)

Late Period:

  • Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major (1825)

  • Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major (1825)

  • Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1826). This seven-movement work includes pizzicato and sul ponticello passages. The movements form an arch with the variations as the central movement. The seven movements could be seen as based on a four-movement plan with movements 2, 4, 5, and 7 as the basic four movements, and movements 1, 3, and 6 as introductory movements. The movements are linked by motives as well (see chart and excerpts in text).

  • Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)

  • Opus 133: Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet (1826)

  • Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)

32 Piano Sonatas
Early Viennese:

  • Opus 13: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, "Pathetique" (1798)

  • Opus 27, no. 2: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor "Moonlight" (1801)

  • Opus 31, no. 2: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor "Tempest" (1802)

  • Opus 31, no. 3: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major "The Hunt" (1802)

Heroic Period:

  • Opus 53: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major "Waldstein" (1804). Dedicated to Count Waldstein. Starts with “brooding ostinato” with “lightning flashes” in the right hand. Key schemes are disrupted (dominant arrives late in the exposition, 2nd theme is in A Major in the recapitulation, and only stated in tonic in the coda)

  • Opus 57: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor "Appassionata" (1805). Also has a key-scheme “problem” which is solved over the course of the movement.

  • Opus 81a: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major "Les adieux/Lebewohl" (1810)

Late Period:

  • Opus 101: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major (includes improvisatory passage in slow movement)

  • Opus 106: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major "Hammerklavier" (1819)

  • Opus 109: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major (1820) (long trill)

  • Opus 110: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major (1821) (recitative)

  • Opus 111: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor (1822)

Other Important Works:

  • Opera—Fidelio, Op 72, (1814)

  • Mass—Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, (1822). Originally intended as the Mass for the installation of the Archduke Rudolf as the archbishop of Olmütz, the work grew in proportions to become a compendium of techniques for setting the mass. In this way, it is comparable to Bach’s B Minor Mass.

  • 10 Violin Sonatas

  • 5 Cello Sonatas

  • 9 Piano Trios for Violin, Cello and Piano, including the “Archduke” Trio

  • Diabelli Variations. Thirty-three variations on a Waltz by Diabelli. Variations are built on “motives derived from the theme but altered in rhythm, tempo, dynamics” to produce distantly related variations. Brahms and Schumann followed this work as a model.


  • Life story helped shape the Romantic view of the artist as cultural hero and social outsider

  • It was Beethoven’s heroic style works which dominated the 19th century view of him (symphonies 5, 6, 7 and 9, and the piano sonatas). The late quartets were not understood

  • E.T.A. Hoffmann saw Beethoven as a romantic composer.

  • Beethoven was, in the words of our text, one of the great disruptive forces in the history of music. No subsequent composer could view the symphony (or any other instrumental genre) in the same way as it was seen before. Further, Beethoven’s influence on opera was great, because of his programmatic symphonies and his system of thematic transformation. Wagner studied Beethoven closely. (includes improvisatory passages)

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