Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most celebrated composers in history, left an indelible mark on the world of music. His vast body of work includes symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano sonatas, and more. Such a massive output can be overwhelming to dive into…so where should new listeners start?
Of course, when it comes to art, the word “best” is subjective, and musicians disagree all the time about which works should top “best of” lists. That said, it’s universally agreed that all of the works below are vital and hugely enjoyable listens!
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at some of Beethoven’s best pieces in each genre, showcasing his genius, innovation, and enduring influence.
Beethoven’s Best Symphony:
Beethoven’s symphonies stand as pillars of orchestral repertoire, each one a masterpiece in its own right. The third, fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth are especially popular.
Among those, Symphony No. 9 in D minor (sometimes referred to as a “choral symphony” because it prominently features a chorus in its closing movement) shines as a testament to Beethoven’s creative vision.
Beethoven was one of the first composers to consider bringing the human voice into the sound world of the symphony, which, before the Ninth Symphony, had been reserved for instruments alone.
The work’s final movement, featuring the uplifting “Ode to Joy” choral theme, expresses a universal message of unity and brotherhood. That message of unity and brotherhood is conveyed so convincingly that the “Ode to Joy” theme became the official anthem of the European Union in 1985.
The ninth symphony would be Beethoven’s last. It was premiered in 1824, and Beethoven died in 1827.
Symphony No. 9
Beethoven’s Best Concerto:
Over the course of his life, Beethoven wrote seven concertos (works for solo instrument and orchestra). Since Beethoven made a portion of his living by performing as a virtuoso pianist, five of those concertos were written for piano.
Beethoven’s piano concertos demonstrate his ability to showcase the brilliance of a solo instrument while maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the orchestra.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, nicknamed the “Emperor Concerto,” exemplifies this mastery perfectly.
With its majestic opening and virtuosic piano passages, it captures the essence of Beethoven’s innovative style, combining drama, lyricism, and technical brilliance.
From its noble opening movement to its ethereal second movement and its joyous finale, the Emperor concerto is without a doubt, Beethoven’s most immediately engaging concerto.
Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Emperor’
Beethoven’s Best String Quartet:
Beethoven loved writing for the intimate and deeply personal genre of string quartet (i.e., two violins, viola, and cello). Over the course of his life, he wrote sixteen string quartets, dating between 1798 and 1827, the year of his death.
It’s a tough race with many worthy candidates, but when it comes to string quartets, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor might just be the pinnacle not just of Beethoven’s output, but all composers’ output.
Comprising seven interconnected movements, this quartet is Beethoven at his most profoundly introspective and emotional.
The quartet’s structural innovation and rich harmonic language have stunned musicians and listeners for generations, solidifying its place as a monumental work in chamber music history.
And he wrote it when he was completely deaf!
String Quartet No. 14 Op. 131 in C minor
Beethoven’s Best Piano Sonata:
Beethoven wrote a whopping thirty-two piano sonatas over the course of his life. They’re renowned for their depth, complexity, and emotional range, and they are integral parts of any serious pianist’s repertoire.
In fact, it’s considered an artistic rite of passage for a virtuoso to play and perform all thirty-two, a collection of performances or recordings that’s known as a “cycle.”
One of the best of these thirty-two works is the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, commonly known as the “Appassionata.”
Its passionate and turbulent nature reflects the composer’s own struggles and embodies the spirit of the rapidly approaching Romantic Era.
From its fiery opening to the contemplative middle movement and the exuberant finale, the “Appassionata” is absolutely captivating from start to finish.
Sonata No. 23 ‘Appassionata’
Beethoven’s Best Violin Sonata
Beethoven wrote ten sonatas for violin (or, more accurately, ten sonatas for violin and piano; it’s important to note that the piano part is always very important in all of these works).
The most famous of the violin sonatas is probably his ninth, nicknamed the “Kreutzer,” after Rodolphe Kreutzer, the violinist who it was dedicated to.
The Kreutzer Sonata draws listeners in from its very first notes with its bold, dramatic opening, written for the violin alone. Its opening movement continues with energetic, fiery exchanges between the violin and piano, demonstrating Beethoven’s skill for writing intense dialogue between instruments.
The second movement provides a striking contrast to the first with its serenity, allowing the performers to explore a gentler, more contemplative mood over the course of multiple variations.
The sonata concludes with a lively and exhilarating third movement, filled with intricate passages and virtuosic displays.
All of Beethoven’s violin sonatas are important parts of the violin repertoire, but the Kreutzer Sonata is a special cornerstone, admired for the duality of its technical and emotional demands.
It also eventually entered literary history when Tolstoy wrote a famous novella called The Kreutzer Sonata, where the sonata gets tied up with themes of violence and sexual desire.
Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer”
At this point it’s a cliche to say, but, love him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Ludwig van Beethoven’s contributions to classical music are immeasurable, and his influence inescapable.
From the monumental Symphony No. 9 to the intimate beauty of the String Quartet No. 14, Beethoven’s genius shines through each and every genre he tackled.
He expanded our ideas about what music could do, and left us all a rich, enduring legacy that will influence generations of musicians and music lovers to come. Today, every listener gets to decide for themselves what they consider to be the best of Beethoven.
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