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5.5: Music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

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    Beethoven was born in Bonn in December of 1770. As you can see from the map at the beginning of this chapter, Bonn sat at the Western edge of the German- ic lands, on the Rhine River. Those in Bonn were well-acquainted with traditions of the Netherlands and of the French; they would be some of the first to hear of the revolutionary ideas coming out of France in the 1780s. The area was ruled by the Elector of Cologne. As the Kapellmeister for the Elector, Beethoven’s grandfather held the most important musical position in Bonn; he died when Beethoven was three years old. Beethoven’s father, Johann Beethoven, sang in the Electoral Chapel his entire life. While he may have provided his son with music lessons at an early stage of Ludwig’s life, it appears that Johann had given into alcoholism and depression, especially after the death of Maria Magdalena Keverich (Johann’s wife and Ludwig’s mother) in 1787.

    Although hundreds of miles east of Vienna, the Electorate of Cologne was un- der the jurisdiction of the Austrian Habsburg empire that was ruled from this Eastern European city. The close ties between these lands made it convenient for the Elector, with the support of the music-loving Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (1762-1823), to send Beethoven to Vienna to further his music training. Ferdinand was the youngest of an aristocratic family in Bonn. He greatly support- ed the arts and became a patron of Beethoven. Beethoven’s first stay in Vienna in 1787 was interrupted by the death of his mother. In 1792, he returned to Vienna for good.

    Perhaps the most universally-known fact of Beethoven’s life is that he went deaf. You can read entire books on the topic; for our present purposes, the timing of his hearing loss is most important. It was at the end of the 1790s that Beethoven first recognized that he was losing his hearing. By 1801, he was writing about it to his most trusted friends. It is clear that the loss of his hearing was an existential crisis for Beethoven. During the fall of 1802, he composed a letter to his brothers that included his last will
    and testament, a document that we’ve come to know as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” named
    after the small town of Heiligenstadt, north of the Viennese city center, where he was staying.
    To view the Testament go to

    The “Heiligenstadt Testament” provides us insight to Beethoven’s heart and mind. Most striking is his statement that his experiences of social alienation, connected to his hearing loss, “drove me almost to despair, a little more of that and I have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back.” The idea that Beethoven found in art a reason to live suggests both his valuing of art and a certain self-awareness of what he had to offer music. Beethoven and his physicians tried various means to counter the hearing loss and improve his ability to function in society. By 1818, however, Beethoven was completely deaf.

    Beethoven had a complex personality. Although he read the most profound philosophers of his day and was compelled by lofty philosophical ideals, his own writing was broken and his personal accounts show errors in basic math.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.25.41 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler. Source: Wikimedia

    He craved close human relationships yet had difficulty sustaining them. By 1810, he had secured a lifetime annuity from local noblemen, meaning that Beethoven never lacked for money. Still, his letters—as well as the accounts of contemporaries—suggest a man suspicious of others and preoccupied with the compensation he was receiving.

    5.7.1 Overview of Beethoven’s Music

    Upon arriving in Vienna in the early 1790s, Beethoven supported himself by playing piano at salons and by giving music lessons. Salons were gatherings of literary types, visual artists, musicians, and thinkers, often hosted by noblewomen for their friends. Here Beethoven both played music of his own composition and improvised upon musical themes given to him by those in attendance.

    In April of 1800 Beethoven gave his first concert for his own benefit, held at the important Burgtheater.

    As typical for the time, the concert included a variety of types of music, vocal, orchestral, and even, in this case, chamber music. Many of the selections were by Haydn and Mozart, for Beethoven’s music from this period was profoundly influenced by these two composers.

    Scholars have traditionally divided Beethoven’s composing into three chronological periods: early, middle, and late. Like all efforts to categorize, this one pro- poses boundaries that are open to debate. Probably most controversial is the dating of the end of the middle period and the beginning of the late period. Beethoven did not compose much music between 1814 and 1818, meaning that any division of those years would fall more on Beethoven’s life than on his music.

    In general, the music of Beethoven’s first period (roughly until 1803) reflects the influence of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s second period (1803-1814) is sometimes called his “heroic” period, based on his recovery from depression documented in the “Heiligenstadt Testament” mentioned earlier. This period includes such music compositions as his Third Symphony, which Beethoven subtitled “Ero- ica” (that is, heroic), the Fifth Symphony, and Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, which took the French revolution as its inspiration. Other works composed during this time include
    Symphonies No. 3 through No. 8 and famous piano works, such as the sonatas “Waldstein,” “Appassionata,” and “Lebewohl” and Concertos No. 4 and No. 5. He continued to write instrumental chamber music, choral music, and songs into his heroic middle period. In these works of his middle period, Beethoven is often regarded as having come into his own because they display a new and original musical style. In comparison to the works of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven’s earlier music, these longer compositions feature larger performing forces, thicker poly- phonic textures, more complex motivic relationships, more dissonance and de- layed resolution of dissonance, more syncopation and hemiola (hemiola is the momentary simultaneous sense of being in two meters at the same time), and more elaborate forms.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.27.28 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Burgtheater by Michael Frankenstein. Source: Wikimedia

    When Beethoven started composing again in 1818, his music was much more experimental. Some of his contemporaries believed that he had lost his ability to compose as he lost his hearing. The late piano sonatas, last five string quartets, monumental Missa Solemnis, and Symphony No. 9 in D minor (The Choral Symphony) are now perceived to be some of Beethoven’s most revolutionary compositions, although they were not uniformly applauded during his lifetime. Beethoven’s late style was one of contrasts: extremely slow music next to extremely fast music and extremely complex and dissonant music next to extremely simple and consonant music.

    Although this chapter will not discuss the music of Beethoven’s early period or late period in any depth, you might want to explore this music on your own. Bee- thoven’s first published piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (1795), shows the influence of its dedicatee, Joseph Haydn. One of Beethoven’s last works, his famous Ninth Symphony, departs from the norms of the day by incorporating vocal soloists and a choir into a symphony, which was almost always written only for orchestral instruments. The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven’s longest; its first three movements, although innovative in many ways, use the expected forms: a fast sonata form, a scherzo (which by the early nineteenth century—as we will see in our discussion of the Fifth Symphony—had replaced the minuet and trio), and a slow theme and variations form. The finale, in which the vocalists participate, is truly revolutionary in terms of its length, the sheer extremes of the musical styles it uses, and the combination of large orchestra and choir. The text or words that Beethoven chose for the vocalists speak of joy and the hope that all humankind might live together in brotherly love. The “Ode to Joy” melody to which Beethoven set these words was later used for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

    Focus Composition:

    Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1808)

    In this chapter, we will focus on possibly Beethoven’s most famous composition, his Fifth Symphony (1808). The premier of the Fifth Symphony took place at perhaps the most infamous of all of Beethoven’s concerts, an event that lasted for some four hours in an unheated theater on a bitterly cold Viennese evening. At this time, Beethoven was not on good terms with the performers, several who refused to rehearse with the composer in the room. In addition, the final number of the performance was finished too late to be sufficiently practiced, and in the concert, it had to be stopped and restarted. Belying its less than auspicious first performance, once published the Fifth Symphony quickly gained the critical acclaim it has held ever since.

    The most famous part of the Fifth Symphony is its commanding opening. This opening features the entire orchestra playing in unison a musical motive that we will call the short-short-short-long (SSSL) motive, because of the rhythm of its four notes. We will also refer to it as the Fate motive, because at least since the 1830s, music critics have likened it to fate knocking on the door, as discussed at http:// The short notes repeat the same pitch and then the long, held-out note leaps down a third. After the orchestra releases the held note, it plays the motive again, now sequenced a step lower, then again at the original pitches, then at higher pitches. This sequenced phrase, which has become the first theme of the movement, then repeats, and the fast sonata-form movement starts to pick up steam. This is the exposition of the movement.

    After a transition, the second theme is heard. It also starts with the SSSL motive, although the pitches heard are quite different. The horn presents the question phrase of the second theme; then, the strings respond with the answer phrase of the second theme. You should note that the key has changed—the music is now in E flat major, which has a much more peaceful feel than C minor—and the answer phrase of the second theme is much more legato than anything yet heard in the symphony. This tuneful legato music does not last for long and the closing section returns to the rapid sequencing of the SSSL motive. Then the orchestra returns to the beginning of the movement for a repeat of the exposition.

    The development section of this first movement does everything we might expect of a development: the SSSL motive appears in sequence and is altered as the keys change rapidly. Also, we hear more polyphonic imitative in the development than elsewhere in the movement. Near the end of the development, the dynamics alternate between piano and forte and, before the listener knows it, the music has returned to the home key of C minor as well as the opening version of the SSSL motive: this starts the recapitulation. The music transitions to the second theme—now still in the home key of C minor—and the closing section. Then, just when the listener expects the recapitulation to end, Beethoven extends the movement in a coda. This coda is much longer than any coda we have yet listened to in the music of Haydn or Mozart, although it is not as long as the coda to the final movement of this symphony. These long codas are also another element that Beethoven is known for. He often restates the conclusive cadence many times and in many rhythmic durations.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.29.15 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Opening of Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 by Stelios Samelis. Source: Mutopia Project

    The second movement is a lyrical theme and variations movement in a major key, which provides a few minutes of respite from the menacing C minor; if you listen carefully, though, you might hear some reference to the SSSL fate motive. The third movement returns to C minor and is a scherzo. Scherzos retain the form of the minuet, having a contrasting trio section that divides the two presentations of the scherzo. Like the minuet, scherzos also have a triple feel, although they tend to be somewhat faster in tempo than the minuet.

    This scherzo third movement opens with a mysterious, even spooky, opening theme played by the lower strings. The second theme returns to the SSSL motive, although now with different pitches. The mood changes with a very imitative and very polyphonic trio in C major, but the spooky theme reappears, alongside the fate motive, with the repeat of the scherzo. Instead of making the scherzo a discrete movement, Beethoven chose to write a musical transition between the scherzo and the final movement, so that the music runs continuously from one movement to another. After suddenly getting very soft, the music gradually grows in dynamic as the motive sequences higher and higher until the fourth movement bursts onto the scene with a triumphant and loud C major theme. It seems that perhaps our hero, whether we think of the hero as the music of the symphony or perhaps as Beethoven himself, has finally triumphed over Fate.

    The fourth movement is a rather typical fast sonata form finale with one exception. The second theme of the scherzo (b), which contains the SSSL fate motive, ap- pears one final time at the end of the movement’s development section, as if to try one more time to derail the hero’s conquest. But, the movement ultimately ends with a lot of loud cadences in C major, providing ample support for an interpretation of the composition as the overcoming of Fate. This is the interpretation that most commentators for almost two hundred years have given the symphony. It is pretty amazing to think that a musical composition might express so aptly the human theme of struggle and triumph. Listen to the piece and see if you hear it the same way.

    lisTeninG Guide

    For audio of the first and second movements performed by the Orchestre Révo- lutionnaire et Romantique (on period instruments) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, go to:

    For audio of the third and fourth movements performed by the NBC Orchestra in 1952, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, go to:

    Composer: Beethoven
    Composition: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
    Date: 1808
    Genre: symphony

    Form: Four movements as follows:
    I. Allegro con brio – fast, sonata form
    II. Andante con moto – slow, theme and variations form III. Scherzo. Allegro – Scherzo and Trio (ABA)
    IV. Allegro – fast, sonata form

    Performing Forces: piccolo (fourth movement only), two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon (fourth movement only), two horns, two trumpets, three trombones (fourth movement only), timpani, and strings (first and second violins, viola, cellos, and double basses)

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • Its fast first movement in sonata form opens with the short-short- short-long motive (which pervades much of the symphony): Fate knocking at the door?
    • The symphony starts in C minor but ends in C major: a triumphant over fate?

    Allegro con moto

    For a guided analysis by Gerard Schwarz of the first movement go to: terpieces-old-and-new/beethoven-fifth-symphony/v/ludwig-van-beetho- ven-part-1

    What we want you to remember about this movement

    • Its fast first movement in sonata form opens with the short-short- short-long motive (which pervades much of the symphony): Fate knocking at the door?
    • Its C minor key modulates for a while to other keys but returns at the end of this movement
    • The staccato first theme comprised of sequencing of the short-short- short-long motive (SSSL) greatly contrasts the more lyrical and legato second theme
    • The coda at the end of the movement provides dramatic closure.
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form


    Full orchestra in a mostly homo- phonic texture and forte dynamic. Melody starts with the SSSL motive introduced and then suspended with a fermata (or hold). After this happens twice, the melody continues with the SSSL motive in rising sequences.

    EXPOSITION: First theme


    The forte dynamic continues, with emphasis from the timpani. Falling sequences using the SSSL rhythm.



    After the horn call, the strings lead this quieter section.
    A horn call using the SSSL motive introduces a more lyrical theme— now in a major key.

    Second theme


    SSSL rhythms passes through the full orchestra that plays at a forte dynamic.
    The SSSL rhythm returns in down- ward sequences.


    1:17   EXPOSITION: Repeats

    Some polyphonic imitation; lots of dialogue between the low and high instruments and the strings and winds.

    Rapid sequences and changing of keys, fragmentation and alternation of the original motive.


    3:23 Music moves from louds to softs Retransition

    but ends with a short oboe cadenza. Starts like the exposition.

    RECAPITULATION: First theme
    4:09 Similar to the transition in the ex- position but does not modulate. “Transition”


    Now started by the oboes and bas- soons.
    Now in C minor, not E flat major, which provides a more ominous tone.

    Second theme

    4:53 As above Closing


    After a sudden piano articulation of the SSSL motive, suddenly ends in a loud and bombastic manner: Fate threatens.

    Re-emphasizes C minor.


    For a guided analysis by Gerard Schwarz of the first movement from an orches- tra conductor’s perspective, go to: pieces-old-and-new/beethoven-fifth-symphony/v/gerard-schwarz-gives-a- conducting-lesson-beethoven-5th-part-1Andante

    For a guided analysis by Gerard Schwarz of the second movement, go to: pieces-old-and-new/beethoven-fifth-symphony/v/ludwig-van-beethoven- symphony-no-5-analysis-by-gerard-schwarz-mov-2

    What we want you to remember about this movement:

    • It is a slow theme and variations movement
    • Its major key provides contrast from the minor key of the first movement
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form

    0:00 [6:32]

    Mostly homophonic.
    Consists of two themes, the first more lyrical; the second more march-like.

    Theme: a and b

    1:40 [8:12]

    More legato and softer at the beginning, although growing loud for the final statement of b in the brass before decrescendoing to piano again. Violas subdivide the beat with fast running notes, while the other instruments play the theme.

    Variation 1: a and b

    3:15 [9:47]

    Starts with a softer dynamic and more legato articulations for the “a” phrase and staccato and louder march-like texture when “b” enters, after which the music decrescendos into the next variation.

    Even more rapid subdivision of
    the beat in the lower strings at the beginning of “a.” Then the “b” phrase returns at the very end of the section.

    Variation 2: a and b

    5:30 [12:02]

    Lighter in texture and more staccato, starting piano and crescendoing to forte for the final variation.
    The “a” phrase assumes a jaunty rhythm and then falls apart .

    Variation 3: a

    6:05 [12:37]

    The full orchestra plays forte and then sections of the orchestra trade motives at a quieter dynamic.
    The violins play the first phrase

    of the melody and then the winds respond with its answer.

    Variation 4: A

    6:46 [13:17]

    Full orchestra plays, soft at first, and then crescendoing, decrescendoing, and crescendoing a final time to the end of the movement. Motives are passed through the orchestra and re-emphasized at the very end of the movement.


    Scherzo. Allegro

    For a guided analysis by Gerard Schwarz of the third and four movements, go to: es-old-and-new/beethoven-fifth-symphony/v/beethoven-fourth-movement

    What we really want you to remember about this movement:

    • It is a scherzo movement that has a scherzo (A) trio (B) scherzo (A) form
    • The short-short-short-long motive returns in the scherzo sections
    • The scherzo section is mostly homophonic, and the trio section is mostly imitative polyphony
    • It flows directly into the final movement without a break
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form

    Lower strings and at a quiet dynamics. Rapidly ascending legato melody.

    Scherzo (A): A


    Presented by the brass in a forte dynamic.
    Fate motive.


    16:05   a b a b


    Polyphonic imitation lead by the lower strings.
    Fast melody.

    Trio (B): c c d d


    Now the repetitious SSSL theme is played by the bassoons, staccato. Fast melody.

    Scherzo (A): A


    Strings are playing pizzicato (pluck- ing) and the whole ensemble playing at a piano dynamic.
    Fate motive but in the oboes and strings.



    Very soft dynamic to begin with and then slowly crescendos to the forte opening of the fourth movement. Sequenced motive gradually ascends in register.

    Transition to the fourth movement

    What we want you to remember about this movement:

    • It is a fast sonata form movement in C major: the triumph over Fate?
    • The SSSL motive via the scherzo “b” theme returns one final time at the end of the development
    • The trombones for their first appearance in a symphony to date
    • It has a very long coda
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form

    20:02 [0:31]

    Forte and played by the full orchestra (including trombones, contra- bassoon and piccolo).
    Triumph triadic theme in C major.

    EXPOSITION: First theme


    Full orchestra, led by the brass and then continued by the strings.
    The opening motive of the first theme sequenced as the music modulates to the away key.


    21:05 [1:31]

    Full orchestra and slightly softer. Triumphant, if more lyrical, using triplet rhythms in the melody and in G Major.

    Second theme

    21:34 [2:11] Full orchestra, forte again. Repetition of a descending them. Closing theme

    22:03 [2:29]

    Motives passed through all sections of the orchestra.
    Motives from second theme appear, then motives from the first theme.


    23:36 [4:00]

    Piano dynamic with the theme in the winds and the strings accompanying. Using the fate motive

    Return of scherzo theme

    24:11 [4:35]

    Performing forces are as before. C major.
    24:43 [5:08] Performing forces are as before. Does not modulate.

    25:14 [5:39]

    As before

    Second theme

    25:39 [6:04]

    Starts softly with the woodwinds and then played forte by the whole orchestra.
    Does not modulate.

    Closing theme

    26:11 [6:40]

    Notice the dramatic silences, the alternation of of legato and stac- cato articulations, and the sudden increase in tempo near the coda’s conclusion: full orchestra.
    Lengthy coda starting with motive from second theme, then proceed- ing through with a lot of repeated cadences emphasizing C major and repetition of other motives until the final repeated cadences.


    For Leon Botstein’s “An Appreciation” of Beethoven and his Symphony, go to: terpieces-old-and-new/beethoven-fifth-symphony/v/ludwig-van-beetho- ven-symphony-no-5-an-appreciation-by-leon-botstein

    This page titled 5.5: Music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.