When people think about classical music, they usually think about Ludwig van Beethoven. He is nearly synonymous with the entire music period, and he is the gold standard to which just about every other composer is compared.
Without a doubt, his Marquis style of composition is the Sonata. During the course of his storied life, he wrote 32 of them. Even professional pianists will spend their entire lives trying to master all of them, with numerous competitions taking place around the world for students of all levels.
While all of these sonatas are great in their own ways, some stand above the rest. Take a look at our list of what we think are the ten greatest Beethoven piano sonatas, and take a listen to a few of them to see why people love them so much! Then, try your hand at a Beethoven sonata if you have any desire to play the piano!
10. Piano Sonata Number 27, Op 90
At number 10, we have Piano Sonata Number 27, Op 90, which is one of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas. It was written in 1814, toward the end of the middle period, and was written for Prince Moritz von Lichnowsky.
This is one of the few Beethoven sonatas that does not have at least three movements, but this one only has two.
The first movement is a bit restless, full of passionate energy. The second movement is a rondo, bringing out numerous characteristics that would become common during the romantic period of music.
It is exquisitely beautiful and has a unique melody.
Related: Check out our list of facts about Ludwig von Beethoven here.
9. The Hunt, Piano Sonata Number 18, Op 31
Next, we have Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 18, Op 31, usually called The Hunt, due to its themes that resemble a horn being played during a hunt.
This is one of Beethoven’s most playful works, a nice departure from the dramatic, tragic, and dark themes that permeate many of his other sonatas. Happier themes are commonly found in Beethoven’s earlier works, and this one was composed in 1802.
At the same time, the joyful, playful nature gives way to deep emotions as the sonata progresses, with a master pianist able to bring out the shift for the listener as the piece goes along.
8. A Therese, Piano Sonata Number 24, Op 78
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 24, Op 78, is frequently overlooked, but it remains one of his greatest.
Compared to his other piano sonatas, this one is relatively short, containing only two movements; however, it is still a powerful work in Beethoven’s repertoire.
It was composed for Countess Therese von Brunswick (which is where it gets its name from), and the two movements are an Adagio and an Allegro.
A typical performance of this brief piece only lasts about nine minutes, but according to Carl Czerny, Beethoven considered the sonata to be one of his favorites. Therefore, it is still frequently performed.
7. Tempest, Piano Sonata Number 17, Op 31
The Tempest Sonata was composed in 1801 and 1802. It is one of Beethoven’s darkest sonatas, and it portends a significant amount of tragedy.
It contains three separate movements, with the first movement starting slow before picking up, resembling a storm. The second movement is slowed, wandering, and dramatic. Finally, the third movement picks up the tempo again, with triplet groups that appear to be speaking to each other.
The entire sonata alternates between moments of peacefulness and long passages of distress, with master pianists able to bring out the contrasting expressions of this piece beautifully.
Related: This piece is also in our list of sad piano pieces here.
6. Pathetique, Piano Sonata Number 8, Op 13
Even though it is one of his earliest works, it remains one of his most famous sonatas even to this day. It’s dedicated to one of Beethoven’s closest friends, Prince Karl von Lichnowsky.
The Pathetique Sonata contains a lot of earlier classical elements, particularly from the days of Mozart.
It is broken up into three distinct movements, with the second one being significantly slower than the other two; however, the second movement is arguably the most well-known.
It is one of the most commonly taught sonatas, and the second movement is frequently used as an introduction to the works of Beethoven for students.
It might not be as challenging as the other sonatas, but it is still frequently performed in concerts.
5. Moonlight Sonata, Piano Sonata Number 14, Op 27
Piano Sonata Number 14, Op 27 or more commonly known as the Moonlight Sonata, is perhaps Beethoven’s most well-known.
It contains three distinct movements, all with a different feel. Intermediate pianists commonly learn the first movement, as it has slowed, repetitive triplet groups; however, the other two movements are far more difficult, with the third movement coming at a quick pace, filled with countless arpeggios that fly up and down a piano.
The piano sonata was composed between 1801 and 1802, dedicated to one of his students.
It is frequently performed at piano competitions and during professional concerts and is consistently listed among Beethoven’s greatest works.
4. Les Adieux, Piano Sonata Number 26, Op 81a
Beethoven composed Les Adieux, which translates into The Farewell, between 1809 and 1810.
The sonata was composed as Napoleon attacked Vienna, forcing Archduke Rudolph to leave the city.
The Sonata is one of the major three of the middle period and tells the story of people fleeing the city as Napoleon advanced.
The Sonata is one of his most difficult and is considered a bridge between the middle and late periods.
The first movement is called Das Lebewohl, which translates to The Farewell and is a relatively slow movement that picks up at the end.
The second movement, Abwesenheit, is The Absence and is a much slower, dramatic movement.
Finally, the third movement is extremely quick and is called Das Wiedersehen, or The Return, and is filled with runs and arpeggios that challenge the fingers of even the most experienced pianists.
3. Waldstein, Piano Sonata Number 21, Op 53
The Waldstein Sonata is one of the marquee compositions of Beethoven’s middle period.
Composed in C Major, it is a luminous, happy, upbeat sonata with an average performance taking approximately 24 minutes.
It is divided into three movements, with the first and third movements being significantly longer than the shorter second movement, which is much more of an Introduzione.
It is widely considered to be one of the most challenging Beethoven sonatas. The sonata is so difficult that even some of the most accomplished pianists in the world have to simplify the octave glissandos that take place in the third movement.
The sonata was composed during a time when pianos had much lighter actions. Today, piano keys are significantly harder to press, so even accomplished pianists have a hard time playing the octave glissandos in the third movement.
Regardless, the Waldstein is one of the most frequently performed sonatas and serves as an antipode to the Appassionata, another major middle-period work.
2. Appassionata, Piano Sonata Number 23, Op 57
The Appassionata Sonata is widely regarded as one of Beethoven’s signature works. Unlike the other major middle-period sonatas, this one is one of the darkest compositions he ever performed.
The first movement contains cascading runs and lightning arpeggios, while the third movement is commonly described as being in perpetual motion.
It serves as a beautiful contrast to the luminous Waldstein and the lighthearted Les Adieux.
Widely considered to be one of his most challenging works, the Appassionata is a staple of numerous classical pianists.
The piece starts with an Adagio before flying through the end of the first movement. The second movement is an Andante before leading directly into a fast-paced Allegro at the end, which climaxes in a brilliant coda.
An average performance takes about 22 minutes.
1. Hammerklavier, Piano Sonata Number 29, Op 106
And finally, even though there might be some debate regarding the other sonatas, there is no debate about which one is the greatest and the most challenging.
The Hammerklavier Sonata, Beethoven Opus 106, Piano Sonata Number 29 in B-flat Major, is widely regarded as one of the most challenging piano pieces of all time.
One of the biggest reasons why it is so challenging is that it is significantly longer than every other piano sonata, with a typical performance lasting approximately 45 minutes.
The piano sonata is divided into four movements, with an Allegro, a scherzo, an Adagio, and Introduzione.
The piano sonata itself was completed in 1818, and the first documented public performance of this challenging Sonata took place in 1836 by Franz Liszt.
It has a lot of technical components that foreshadow the coming Romantic Movement and music, and it was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, his patron.
It contains numerous spectacular themes that permeate throughout the other late-period sonatas performed by Beethoven, and it is a standard of classical piano.