Ludwig van Beethoven

1770–1827

Classical/Romantic

Ludwig van Beethoven was a giant in music. He had the strength to do his own thing – and his own thing was extraordinary. Many say he was the greatest composer who ever lived.

Beethoven played a star part in moving music onwards from the style of the controlled Classical Era to the freer Romantic Era. He is most famous for his symphonies, which were bigger, louder and more exciting than any music anyone in his day had heard before. In fact, his Ninth Symphony, one of the greatest works ever composed, was the first important symphony to include a choir! He also composed a lot of wonderful music for the piano – you’ve probably already heard Für Elise and Sonata No. 14 (‘Moonlight’), for example. He was a talented pianist himself and everybody admired his playing, especially his improvisations (making up music on the spot).

Beethoven admired Mozart, and when he was young he wanted Mozart to be his teacher. This never happened, but he did get to study with Haydn. Haydn could see he was brilliant, although Beethoven, who didn’t smile very much, was quite rude about poor Haydn.

Beethoven developed his own style and ideas, creating music no one else could have written. Imagine you’ve only ever heard music like Bach’s or Mozart’s in your life – where there are no big surprises – and then suddenly you hear the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—ba-ba-ba BAAHH! You’d jump out of your seat! Many people in Beethoven’s day found it all a bit overwhelming.

Beethoven never married, but for a long time he was in love with a wealthy countess named Julie. Because he wasn’t from a noble family, as she was, they couldn’t get married: in those days, it was expected that people only marry within their own social class. However, he dedicated one of his loveliest pieces, the so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, to her.

When Beethoven was still young – even before he turned 30 – he began to lose his hearing, and for the last ten years of his life he was nearly deaf. You might think that would keep someone from writing music, but not Beethoven! He heard it all in his head, and some of his best music was composed during this time, including his ambitious and ground-breaking Ninth Symphony, and his incredible final string quartets.

Ludwig van Beethoven, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Hear what Beethoven sounds like...

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (‘Moonlight’): Adagio sostenuto

In this famous sonata, Beethoven is moving out of his early, Classical period and into a richer, more Romantic style. The first movement is especially magical and beautiful!

Performers: Silvia Capova, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.571012

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’: Finale: Presto (extract)

You may well have heard this one before – it’s probably the most famous thing Beethoven ever wrote. Do you recognise it? It’s the energetic last movement of his Symphony No. 9, with a choir really going for it!

Performers: Hasmik Papian, soprano; Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano; Manfred Fink, tenor; Claudio Otelli, bass-baritone; Nicolaus Esterházy Chorus; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553478

String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131: I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo

Of all the string quartets Beethoven wrote late in his life, Beethoven liked this one best. And the composer Schubert thought it was brilliant. He apparently said, ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.554594

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What instrument was Beethoven most renowned for playing?

a. Violin
b. Piano
c. Accordion

 When did Beethoven start to go deaf?

a. Around 1796
b. Around 1810
c. Before 1790

 What insect-themed poem by Goethe did Beethoven set?

a. Beetle Song
b. Gnat Song
c. Flea Song

 After he went completely deaf, how did Beethoven communicate with his friends?

a. Conversation books
b. Yelling
c. Sign language

 Who caused Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 to be called the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata?

a. Beethoven himself
b. Heinrich Heine
c. Ludwig Rellstab


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Beethoven started going deaf when he was still quite young – before he was 30!
  2. Even aside from his deafness, Beethoven did tend to get ill. No wonder he was known for being grumpy!
  3. Like most composers of his day, Beethoven earned a living by teaching the piano – but he didn’t like it very much! It took time away from his composing.
  4. Beethoven came from a poor family, and his father taught him the piano so that he could earn money.
  5. Beethoven kept detailed diaries, so even today we have some understanding about the way his mind worked.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Early Works


Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

Beethoven’s First Symphony shows how he learnt from earlier composers, like Haydn: it is quite Classical in style, without the storminess of later symphonies. But even as early as this, Beethoven showed his personality in his music: for example, there are sudden loud bits (szforzandi).

Performers: Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553474


Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (‘Pathétique’)

Beethoven was only 27 when he wrote this wonderful and much-loved piano sonata. He dedicated it to his friend Prince Karl von Lichnowsky.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550045


Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19

Beethoven used this dramatic concerto to show off at the piano! It is very virtuosic – meaning that the pianist needs to be really skilled to get the hang of it. Beethoven would perform it all over Europe while he was making a name for himself.

Performers: Stefan Vladar, piano; Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.550121


String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18 No. 3

Even though this is called String Quartet No. 3, it’s actually the first one Beethoven ever wrote – he finished it in 1800.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550559


Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (‘Moonlight’)

In this famous sonata, Beethoven was rebelling already: you were supposed to start your sonata with a fast movement, not something slow and pretty. But Beethoven decided he’d do whatever he liked! And what he liked, other people seemed to like too…

Performers: Silvia Capova, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.571012

‘Heroic’ Middle Period of Composition


Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’

This symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon – Beethoven thought he was a great role-model for the goals of fairness that the French Revolution was all about. But then Napoleon got all grand, telling everybody he was now ‘Emperor’. Beethoven was so cross! He tore up the page of his music with Napoleon’s name on, and threw it on the floor.

Performers: Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553475


Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (‘Emperor’)

Probably Beethoven’s most popular concerto – and his last. It was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, another of Beethoven’s patrons. It has one of the most beautiful slow movements that you’ll find anywhere. Beethoven didn’t call it ‘Emperor’ – the name was given to it by the man who published the sheet music.

Performers: Stefan Vladar, piano; Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.554676


Fidelio, Op. 72 (excerpts)

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio took ten years to create. He revised and altered it many, many times.

Performers: Alan Titus, baritone (Pizarro); Edith Lienbacher, soprano (Marzelline); Inga Nielsen, soprano (Leonore); Rocco, bass (Kurt Moll); Herwig Pecoraro, tenor (Jaquino); Hungarian Radio Chorus; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.557892


Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 (‘Waldstein’)

One of Beethoven’s grandest piano sonatas, it’s also one of his most difficult. Just listen to all those fast runs when it gets going! Count Waldstein was another patron of Beethoven’s and he dedicated this sonata to him, so that is why it is known as ‘Waldstein’.

Performers: Boris Giltburg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.573400


Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (‘Appassionata’)

This is another super-challenging sonata, and very stormy. These days it’s one of his most popular works. The nickname ‘Appassionata’ means ‘passionate’ in Italian – and it describes the sonata very well!

Performers: Silvia Capova, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.571012

Late Works


Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (‘Choral’)

Many experts (and many non-experts!) think this symphony is the greatest thing Beethoven wrote. It was his last symphony. We call it a choral symphony because it has a choir in it as well – no major composer had ever used a choir in a symphony before. The choir is only in the last movement, and it’s a thrilling effect when they come in with the ‘Ode to Joy’! There are solo singers, too. It is a big piece of music!

Performers: Hasmik Papian, soprano; Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano; Manfred Fink, tenor; Claudio Otelli, bass-baritone; Nicolaus Esterházy Chorus; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553478


Missa Solemnis, Op. 123 (excerpts)

There are thousands of works by all sorts of composers that set the Latin Mass text to music – some really good and some pretty awful. (You won’t find any awful ones on Naxos MusicBox!) This Mass setting of Beethoven’s, the Missa Solemnis, can easily claim to be the best ever – out of all those thousands!

Performers: Lori Phillips, soprano; Robynne Redmon, mezzo-soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Jay Baylon, bass-baritone; Nashville Symphony Chorus; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn

Taken from Naxos 8.557060


String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131

Of all the string quartets Beethoven wrote late in his life, Beethoven liked this one best. And the composer Schubert thought it was brilliant. He apparently said, ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.554594


Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 (‘Hammerklavier’)

This is one of Beethoven’s most famous and important piano sonatas – and it’s probably the most difficult of all 32 of them to play. It was also much longer than a solo instrumental piece would normally be – another example of Beethoven being different! But although it’s long, it’s not at all boring…

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550234


Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (excerpts)

Beethoven chose a waltz tune by Anton Diabelli, which we hear in track 1 as the ‘Theme’, and then he did all sorts of things to dress it up! There are 33 different variations (like costumes!) where the theme is altered in unusual and astonishing ways. Here you can listen to a few of these. The Diabelli Variations inspired many later composers, including Brahms and Schumann.

Performers: Edmund Battersby, fortepiano

Taken from Naxos 8.557384-85