Unlike many of my colleagues who grew up around Beethoven, either by hearing him in the home or studying his piano music, I managed to (unintentionally) avoid him for a long time, only really discovering Beethoven as I embarked on my orchestral career. I’d studied Beethoven at university, through analysing his piano and chamber music, but something never really clicked. It wasn’t until I was navigating my way through the clarinet parts of Beethoven’s symphonies that I set about discovering a body of music that seemed to capture every emotion out there. This was ‘My Beethoven’ – a composer that had lain dormant for over 20 years, only now showing his face, and along with it all the colours and brilliance he had at his disposal.
I remember feeling – even still these days a little bit – overwhelmed at the sheer amount of Beethoven’s music out there. Even narrowing the filter to his symphonies left me with 37 movements and over five and a half hours of music to grapple with. So, if like me, Beethoven has remained a bit of an unapproachable giant, I offer you my whistlestop tour of the Beethoven Symphonies. It’s just a quick guide to get you started, and it by no means implies that the bits I don’t mention aren’t any good. I simply want to convey the humanity, joy, fear, exuberance and love I discovered through these pieces. There are four main categories I try to cover: Epic, Beautiful, Intense/Tragic, and Fun. Of course, all Beethoven’s music falls into all these categories at once, and it’s impossible to label his music with just one word, and so on, but if, like me, you didn’t know where to start, I hope this helps at least a little bit.
Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’, first movement
You can’t go wrong with the first movement of Beethoven 3. Think conquest, think triumph, think humanity, think of the elation of trouncing someone you really hate at a board game: think Beethoven 3.
Symphony No. 7, first movement
Slow introduction, fast main section, 6/8 rhythm, A major, crazy high French horns: Beethoven 7 has it all.
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 – I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace
Symphony No. 9, finale
This is the real bells and whistles movement to end all movements. What’s that, you say? You’d like a contrabassoon introduction to a piccolo-fuelled Turkish march? You’d like a full choir? You’d like one of the most famous tunes ever written? You want half an hour of totally indulgent, off-the-wall finale madness? Look no further than Beethoven 9. Warning: described by many of my [British] colleagues as being ‘a bit much.’
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral” – IV. Finale: Presto – Allegro assai
Symphony No. 2, second movement
Ok, so Beethoven 2 doesn’t often get a look in due to it being in the shadow of what came later (see ‘Symphony No. 9, finale’), but this movement is as good as any other. Charming, poised and elegant – I’ll take that any day.
Symphony No. 5, second movement
Often overshadowed by its predecessor (yep, that tune), this one is a personal favourite of mine. Warm, glowing, A-flat major? Luscious harmony? Nice little clarinet tune? Oh, go on then.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – II. Andante con moto
Symphony No. 9, third movement
Use this mainly as a moment to catch your breath in between the manic scherzo and full-on finale (unless of course you’re playing second clarinet, or indeed any wind instrument, as this movement is notorious for its lack of places to breathe, leaving you absolutely exhausted even pre-contrabassoon/piccolo finale madness).
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral” – III. Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato
INTENSE/TRAGIC [It wouldn’t be an article about Beethoven without an ‘intense/tragic’ subheading]
Symphony No. 5, first movement
I know, I know. How could I be so predictable? How could I choose the most famous piece in all of classical music? ‘Isn’t he supposed to know all the niche bits, all the bits I can’t be bothered to find myself?’ I hear you ask. Well, this movement’s actually really quite good, so there.
Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’, second movement
Subtitled ‘Funeral March’, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Deep, beautiful, dark, expressive – a masterpiece of orchestral colour and texture.
Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica” – II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
Symphony No. 4, finale
In amongst all the angst and tragedy, it is possible to find some light and joy. One such place is the fourth movement of Beethoven 4. Look out for the clarinet shredding semiquavers about half way through – a particular highlight for colleagues in the wind section to laugh at our pitiful tonguing capabilities, especially after having just been shown up by the bassoon, thinking they’re so good, just because they can double tongue…
Symphony No. 8, finale
Beethoven 8 wins the award for ‘ best loud note in the middle of a quiet bit’. I’m sure he had his audience rolling in the aisles. Jokes aside, the vibrancy and energy of this finale are seldom equalled elsewhere in the repertoire.
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 – IV. Allegro vivace
Symphony No. 1, finale
I’m getting a distinct pattern here… the finales seem to be where Beethoven lets the happiness and light shine through. Even here, in the (unfairly lesser-played) First Symphony, we can see him already honing the qualities of joyful, humorous orchestral interplay that come to mark many of his later finales.
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 – IV. Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace
Of course, there are many beautiful moments in Beethoven’s symphonies that I haven’t mentioned here. I could (and would, if I didn’t have a word count to stick to) go on about them all day. These are just my personal highlights – and if you asked me for the same list next week, it would probably be completely different.
My hope is that if you are reading this and are not familiar with the Beethoven symphonies (or Beethoven at all, for that matter), then ‘My Beethoven’ can become ‘Our Beethoven’ together through this little crash course.
I have often encountered people who give off the impression I was discovering Beethoven ‘wrong’, by not listening to this piece or that, but the truth is, everyone has their own passage into Beethoven’s music, as indeed with any composer, and this just happened to be mine. And if in doubt, just get stuck in; there’s not a dud movement out there.