You Gotta Know These Works by Ludwig van Beethoven

Each work is accompanied by the date of composition, a brief description, and a link to the work’s page on the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) so that interested individuals may peruse the actual (public domain, PDF) scores of the works.

  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (1804–08): The iconic opening motif of the Fifth Symphony—a descending major third followed by a descending minor third, in a short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern—has become ubiquitous in popular culture, though the claim that it represents “fate knocking at the door” is an apocryphal invention. The work’s third movement, a scherzo and trio in C minor, ends on a G major chord that proceeds directly into a C major final movement; that finale features one of the first orchestral uses (though not the first orchestral use) of trombones. The Fifth was premiered as part of a concert that also included the premiere of the Sixth Symphony.
  • Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral”, op. 125 (1822–24): Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marks the first significant use of voices as part of a symphony, though they are only used in the final movement. The opening motif from the first movement reappears in altered form in a second movement scherzo, which itself is followed by a slow third movement that alternates between quadruple and triple time. The massive final movement, whose internal form closely resembles that of the entire symphony, utilizes both Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” and original texts by Beethoven himself. A typical performance takes approximately 75 minutes; the fourth movement alone takes 25.
  • Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”, op. 68 (1802–08): As the title implies, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is a programmatic depiction of rural scenes; it is the composer’s only truly programmatic symphony. The symphony’s five movements, rather than the traditional four, each include a short title or description of their content: “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country” (I), “Scene at the brook” (II), “Happy gathering of country folks” (III), “Thunderstorm” (IV), and “Happy and thankful feelings after the storm” (V). In the score for the second movement, Beethoven explicitly identifies several woodwind motifs as being based on bird calls.
  • Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica”, op. 55 (1803–04): Beethoven’s Third Symphony was composed during the first part of his middle stylistic period, often referred to as his “heroic decade.” Beethoven may have been influenced in the work’s composition by his personal confrontation with his growing deafness. The second movement is a solemn, C minor funeral march, while the finale is a playful set of variations on a melody Beethoven used in several other works. The composer originally intended to title the symphony “Bonaparte”; in a popular but possibly apocryphal story, Beethoven ripped the title page from the score upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor.
  • Fidelio, op. 72 (1805; revised 1806 and 1814): This work is Beethoven’s only opera. The libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner, with revisions by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Treitschke. Leonore wishes to rescure her husband Florestan from the prison of the evil Pizarro; to do so, she disguises herself as a boy named Fidelio so that the jailer Rocco will hire her to help him, and thus grant her access to her husband. Beethoven struggled with his opera: he first presented it as a three-act work before cutting it to the present two-act form, and wrote four separate overtures. The opera utilizes some spoken (rather than sung) dialogue, and includes “O what joy,” a chorus sung by prisoners.
  • Missa solmenis (in D major), op. 123 (1819–23): Generically, a “missa solemnis” (“solemn mass”) is a setting of the Catholic liturgy on a more grand scale than a “missa brevis” (“short mass”). Although it uses the traditional text, Beethoven intended the work for concert performance rather than liturgical use. Beethoven became increasingly fascinated by the fugue during his third stylistic period; his Missa solemnis includes two immense examples that conclude the Gloria and Credo movements. The composer dedicated the work to his patron, the Austrian Archduke Rudolf. The Missa solemnis should not be confused with Beethoven’s earlier C major mass, op. 86 (1807).
  • Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, “Emperor,” op. 73 (1809–10): The “Emperor” concerto, composed near the end of Beethoven’s “heroic decade,” is the last concerto of any type that he completed. Beethoven defies traditional concerto structure in the opening movement by placing the most significant solo material for the piano at the beginning of the movement, rather than near its end. Beethoven did not give the work its title; it was first dubbed “Emperor” by Johann Cramer, who first published the work in England. The “Emperor,” which was premiered by pianist Friedrich Schneider, is the only one of Beethoven’s piano concertos that the composer himself never performed publicly.
  • Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, quasi una Fantasia (“Moonlight”), op. 27 no. 2, (1801–02): As with the “Emperor,” Beethoven did not give the “Moonlight” sonata its nickname; it was coined several years after the composer’s death by Ludwig Rellstab, who commented on the first movement’s resemblance to moonlight on Lake Lucerne. Beethoven’s score calls for the sustain pedal to be held down through the entirety of the first movement. Often overshadowed by the ubiquitous first movement is the violent third movement, a Presto agitato sonata-allegro form with an extended coda, which on a larger scale serves as a recapitulation for the entire sonata. Beethoven dedicated the sonata to Giulietta Guicciardi, his pupil.
  • Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata,” op. 57 (1804–06): Again, Beethoven had no hand in the popular title of this sonata: the “Appassionata” label was applied by a publisher some years after Beethoven’s death. The sonata begins ominously: a theme descends in open octaves to the lowest note of the contemporary piano before rising again in an arpeggio, immediately repeated a minor second higher. The second movement has no stable conclusion, instead directly leading to the third through the use of a diminished seventh chord. The final movement’s coda, which itself introduces new thematic material, is one of the most demanding and difficult passages in all of the composer’s repertoire.
  • Wellington’s Victory; or, the Battle of Vitoria, op. 91 (1813): Also commonly known as the “Battle Symphony.” This heavily programmatic work was originally written for the panharmonicon, an automated orchestra; Beethoven later revised the work for live performers. The work utilizes several familiar melodies—including “God Save the Queen,” “Rule Britannia,” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”—and calls for special effects such as musket fire. The work is generally regarded as one of Beethoven’s worst; even the composer himself acknowledged it as being a money-maker rather than serious art. Note that the piece specifically does not depict Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Jason Thompson.

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