Beethoven's Piano Music: Ode to Joy

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

It would be impossible to imagine the classical piano repertoire without Ludwig van Beethoven. His piano music is undoubtedly one of the greatest treasure-troves available to pianists. The Beethoven Sonatas alone, often referred to as the New Testament of piano music, would really be enough for a lifetime of intense study.

Sonatas

Every sonata by Beethoven has its particular rewards for the player or listener – here we shall name only a few of the most popular ones. Pathétique (Op. 13), the earliest of the “name” sonatas was a complete shock to the musical world with the unprecedented violence of its expression. The Appassionata (Op. 57), one of the great monuments of western music, is even more tumultuous; it belongs to the string of masterworks Beethoven produced after he had come to terms with his deafness – this is Beethoven seizing “Fate by the throat”, as he himself said he would.

Moonlight (or Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27 No. 2) is certainly the most popular of all Beethoven’s sonatas, although many people only know about the first movement – keep listening and you’ll be rewarded! It was the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who first likened the first movement to moonlight as reflected on the surface of Lake Lucerne.

The gigantic Hammerklavier Sonata (Op. 106), rarely played because of its immense challenges to the pianist, occupies a pivotal position in Beethoven's piano music: this work marks the beginning of the transcendent spiritual journey of the composer's late period. The last three sonatas, with opus numbers 109-111 are some of his most forward-looking and experimental works.

Variations

Another interesting element of Beethoven's piano music are the sets of variations on a theme. There are many witty works based on popular tunes which give a hint of how it might have sounded when the young Beethoven sat down to improvise at the keyboard. Then you have the Eroica- (Op.35) and Diabelli Variations (Op. 120), belonging to the composer’s mature masterworks. The monumental Diabelli Variations are based on the little waltz (originally dismissed by Beethoven as a “cobbler’s patch”) that Anton Diabelli sent around to fifty different composers asking them to contribute with one variation each.

Beethoven’s Bagatelles (or “Kleinigkeiten”, “Small Things”) were published in three sets (Opp. 33, 119 and 126). They present a meaning-charged musical idea in a small, terse, even fragmentary, form. While they might have been something of a disappointment for many of Beethoven’s contemporaries, who expected works on a grander scale from such a great composer, their contribution to the development of piano music in the 19th century cannot be overestimated.

Concertos

Finally we have to mention Beethoven’s piano concertos, representing the climax of the Classical concerto but also serving as models for the Romantic composers. In the first three the spirits of Mozart and Haydn are very much present, except that Beethoven gives a lot more importance to the orchestra than his predecessors. Among many important inventions is the solo introduction of the Fourth concerto (Op.58), and the built-in cadenza of the Fifth Op. 73), incorporated into the main body of the movement instead of being extemporised by the performer.

Which is your favorite Beethoven piano work?

Of all the great works Beethoven composed for the piano, is there any sonata, concerto or any other piece that is especially dear to you? Use the comments section below to tell us which work is your particular favorite and why!

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Here is my favorite!

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