Summary of Life and Works


Born in 1770 in Bonn. Unhappy childhood. Father was professional singer, alcoholic. Parents tried to exploit Ludwig as child prodigy, turn him into another Mozart. At 13 he was hired as harpsichordist at Bonn court. In 1787 visited Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart, but had to return after a few weeks because of death of mother.

In 1792 moved to Vienna to work with Haydn. The two did not get along, and B worked on the side with other teachers (including Albrechtsberger and Salieri).

Was well received by Viennese aristocracy. Had different relationship with them from earlier composers; was not subservient but regarded them as equals. Maintained his independence throughout his life. Unlike Mozart, he managed his finances successfully.

First recognized as foremost virtuoso pianist and improvisor, eventually, in his 40's, as Europe's greatest composer. Continued to be revered in his later years, but no longer in fashion with the gerneral public.

From his late 20's was plagued by progressively worsening deafness. In later life had to communicate in writing ("conversation books"). Caused increasing alienation from society and bitterness. (See Heiligenstadt Testament, written at age 32).

After 1808 had to retire from public performing. Died in 1827.


Stands at borderline between Classicism and Romanticism.

Classical features:

  1. Wrote in traditional classical genres, symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, etc., and observed classical formal schemes like sonata-allegro form, variations, rondo, (more frequent deviations from these schemes in late period - see below). But expanded and lengthened these forms.
  2. Basically committed to Enlightenment ideals; despite moods of anger and despair remained optimistic, believed in the eventual creation of a better world in which "all men will be brothers". (Man is in control of his own destiny)

Romantic Features:

  1. Music no longer pleasant diversion, but has serious message to humanity, such as: expression of the composer's inner life and conflicts, or of his view of the human condition. Hence compositions not anymore "disposable" but permanent, for posterity. Each work has individuality, uniqueness. As a result, smaller quantitative output.
  2. Increased use of virtuosity, expanded orchestra, dynamics, use of instruments for special colors and effects. (Some of these trends found in late works of Haydn and Mozart; part of high-classicism.)

Other traits of Beethoven's musical personality: great energy and strength, dynamic, almost never sentimental, special sense of humor..


9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos & 1 violin concerto, 16 string quartets, 30 major piano sonatas, 2 Masses, one opera. Chamber music (quartets and sonatas) less traditional-bound, more experimental than symphonies.


Generally three styles periods recognized:

  1. First style period, to c. 1803. Still almost entirely within classical conventions; Haydn's influence dominates, but also other influences: Mozart, and especially Clementi
  2. Second style period, 1803-1815. Expansion of classical forms, emergence of characteristic language. Creation of the works that have remained most popular and became models the 19th century.
  3. Third style period, 1815-1827. Often breaks out of traditional forms, becomes "experimental". Expression becomes very intimate, personal. Not well understood or appreciated during 19th century.


Beethoven's treatment of sonata-allegro form:

  1. Long, complex development section
  2. Recap not a literal repeat, but varied
  3. Lengthy coda, almost like second development

First Symphony (1799), written at age 29 (almost same age as when Mozart wrote his last!); model classical symphony. Brief slow introduction, harmonically ambiguous opening, resolves into Allegro. Note treatment of sonata-allegro form (see above). Third movement called Menuetto, but actually Scherzo, Beethoven's usual replacement for Minuet. Last movement has humorous beginning.

Second Symphony (1802), still traditional, although larger dimensions.


Third Symphony, "Eroica" (1803). Originally written in honor of Napoleon, to be called "Bonaparte", but Beethoven changed subtitle to "Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man." Big work, probably longest symphony anyone had written up to that time. No slow intro, but two loud chords, followed by simple main theme in cellos. Not really a "theme" since it never continues the same way (motive). Continual sense of forward motion, instability, enhanced by syncopations. Second movement: funeral march (fallen hero). Fourth movement: complex set of variations, based on a Kontratanz (country dance) of B's. (Actually, on bass of Kontratanz; has been shown to be germ of entire Symphony).

Symphonies 4, 5, & 6 written during 1806-1808.

Fourth Symphony: return to the lighter, classical spirit of the first two symphonies.

Fifth Symphony. Beethoven provided no program, but this work is generally seen as embodying the struggle against fate, with ultimate triumph. Large-scale integration of form: obsessive rhythmic motive ("fate knocking against the door" Beethoven is supposed to have said) dominates entire first movement and returns in third and fourth movements; continuous transition between third and fourth movement (as in CPE Bach), and return of segment from third movement in fourth movement. Orchestration in finale reinforced by trombones, piccolo, and contra-bassoon (all for the first time in a symphony).

Sixth Symphony, "Pastorale". Beethoven provides program, but added in score: "More an expression of feeling than depiction". Total contrast in mood with Fifth Symphony; instead of heroic struggle, escape to peaceful country-side. First movement: serene impressions on arriving in the country; calm, slow harmony, with fifth pedal. Second movement: Scene by the brook, with quite literal tone painting, rippling water, bird calls. Third movement: village dance (poking fun at clumsy country band). Fourth movement: Thunderstorm Fifth (!) movement: Thanksgiving after storm

Middle-period concertos:

Although Beethoven follows more or less the traditional scheme (fast-slow-fast), each work has unusual features.

In the Fourth Piano Concerto (1804-1806) the piano begins the first ritornello.

The Fifth ("Emperor") Concerto (1809) begins with a written-out cadenza for the piano. There is also a formal integration: transitions between second and third movements in both 4th and 5th concertos. Tremendous demands on virtuoso skill of soloists, also in beautiful Violin concerto (1806). These works continue to be among the most popular concertos in the entire repertory.

The Monster Concert:

A concert in Vienna on 22 December 1808 included the first performances of Symphonies 5 and 6, the 4th Piano Concerto, two sacred works of chorus and orchestra, an aria, a fantasia for piano solo, and the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 for piano, chorus, and orchestra (all by Beethoven). The concert was under-rehearsed, Beethoven got into fights with members of the orchestra, the whole thing was a mess

Symphonies 7 and 8 (1812)

Wagner called the Seventh Symphony, appropriately, "the Apotheosis of the Dance". Each movement is dominated by a strong rhythmic motive, usually on the pitch E. Main key is A major; second movement is a set of variations in a minor, third movement in F (!), trio recurs twice (ABABA).

Eighth Symphony is shorter, humorous work, with minuet instead of scherzo (neo-classical?).

Also during second style period: some great quartets, as fine as the symphonies, including the three "Rasumovsky" Quartets, Op. 59 (1806)


Resignation: came to terms with deafness .


  1. Meditative rather than heroic, transcendental, extra-musical associations.
  2. Free treatment of forms (string quartet Op. 131 has seven movements!).
  3. Blurring of dividing lines and interpenetration of movements, many tempo changes, loose sense of stinct movements.
  4. Much use of counterpoint and fugue (Op. 131 starts with a fugue), also new type of "evolving" riations.
  5. Reaches for extremes in tempo (especially very slow) and pitch.

Most late works written for intimate circle of friends and admirers rather than for general public; have never become as popular as middle period works (except for Symphony #9 and Missa solemnis, which are untypical). Less physical excitement, fewer memorable tunes, but greater spiritual heights, intenser visions.
Turned mostly to intimate forms; string quartets ("the late quartets") and piano sonatas; but two big, public works:

Missa solemnis (1818-1823)

A gigantic work, the Mass of Masses, more a personal statement from the composer about his relation to his Creator than a functional liturgical work ( it was intended for the installation service of an Archbishop, but was completed three years too late!). Beethoven wrote over the score: "Coming from the heart; may it again reach the heart".

Ninth Symphony (1823)

Work of tremendous scale, length, expanded orchestration, including chorus and vocal soloists (transcending bounds of the traditional symphony). Mysterious beginning bridges silence and sound. Scherzo as second movement, incorporates fugue. Third movement in double variation form, with second theme faster than first. Gigantic last movement begins with reminiscences followed by rejection of earlier movement. The recitative, and setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy. Complex form includes variation on (now) famous hymn melody; note "Turkish march" variation.

Late string quartets occasionally have extra-musical references; Op. 132 with Heiliger Gedankgesang in Lydian mode, and last movement of Op. 135 (B's last complete work) with "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!").