Michael Tanner selects and explores Beethoven’s top 20 must-hear masterpieces.
1) Variations & Fugue on an Original Theme ‘Eroica’, Op. 35 (1802)
These amazing variations, written when Beethoven was 32, are on a theme that fascinated him for many years and recurs in the Eroica Symphony (see below). Here the melody is subject to a series of ever wilder, often hilarious transformations, some of the later ones almost shocking in their audacity.
The composer, himself a great pianist, often liked to wrong-foot his audiences, especially with tender passages at which he roared with laughter. This piece is a prime example of his aggression being put to mischievous purposes.
2) Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’, Op. 55 (1804)
Two years later, Beethoven made his single most stunning advance with his Third Symphony. Not only is it the longest symphony written up to that time, it also has, in a vague way, a subject matter, as indicated by its title. Forget about Napoleon, as Beethoven did. This is about the heroic spirit in general, not one instance of it.
After its initial two hammer blows, it surges into a prolonged movement in which passages of lyric beauty give way, time and again, to terrifying onslaughts. The second movement – greatest of all funeral marches – shows who won. That movement itself ends by crumbling into silence.
The third movement, a simmering, rollicking Scherzo with a lusty trio for three horns, shows that Beethoven is not going to take death lying down; the last, a set of variations, takes the ‘Eroica’ theme and shows how many kinds of joy are possible. After this, nothing could be the same.
3) String Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1 ‘Razumovsky’ (1806)
Beethoven perhaps kept his deepest feelings for string quartets, of which he wrote three sets: early, middle and late, and a couple of isolated ones. This first of three so-called ‘Razumovsky’ quartets is a work on a huge scale, once more breaking the mould of its genre.
Its soaring opening melody is utterly captivating, not least to its own composer who stole it, modified, for a later chamber work. The teasing Scherzo has the instruments interrupting one another, while the slow movement plumbs depths that nothing before in Beethoven’s chamber music had.
4) Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (1806)
Beethoven’s genius was not primarily for melody; he was much more interested in development and transformation. His Violin Concerto is an exception. Though the basic motif of the huge first movement is five drum notes – as unthematic as can be, yet pervasive – when the full orchestra takes over it is with a soaring melody, taken still further by the soloist who plays some of Beethoven’s most serene, touching music.
There is more drama, oddly, in the slow movement than in the outer ones. Beethoven wrote no cadenza for the soloist, though he did make a piano version of the work and wrote four cadenzas for that, one of which is sometimes adapted for violin.
5) Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 (1804-8)
If this symphony had a nickname, surely it would be ‘The Unavoidable’. One almost comes to dread those four notes which begin the work and never leave it alone. Yet it remains astonishing in its ferocity and in the uneasy feeling it can – should – give the listener of uncertainty about whether he or she is being attacked or is indeed the attacker.
Whichever, in a fresh performance it should still knock your socks off. The Scherzo has goblins stalking the earth (or so the author EM Forster thought in Howards End) and leads thrillingly to the finale, the most convincing non-religious orchestral celebration up until then.
6) Fidelio, Op. 72 (1805)
If there is one musical genre Beethoven was not equipped to undertake, it is opera. Yet he wrote one, and it is a supreme masterpiece. Its subject – heroic defiance of tyranny, a wife disguised as a youth so that she can work in a prison and free her wrongly incarcerated husband – was a standard ‘rescue opera’, a genre naturally popular after the French Revolution.
The libretto is in many ways absurd, the spoken dialogue (there are almost no recitatives) inept, and Beethoven’s writing for the voice is, to put it gently, inconsiderate. And yet it has the power to move the listener to tears and ecstasy as few pieces do.
The heroine Leonore’s resolution, the agony of the scene where she thinks she is digging her husband’s grave and the unrestrained rejoicings at the end are among the glories of drama, of all art.
7) Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’, Op. 73 (1809-11)
This is Beethoven for once savouring the fulness of his powers with a work of celebration – not of something in particular, but of the joy of creation. As with many composers, particular keys had connotations for him, and E flat – a key which meant much the same for Mozart – is a promise of richness and excitement.
The climax of the first movement, where orchestra and soloist confront one another with the same chord, is for once no battle but a jubilant display of strength. The slow movement is an ecstatic dream, and the last bounds away with irrepressible energy, until it finally decides to take a rest.
8) Symphony No. 7, Op. 92 (1811-12)
Whenever this work is mentioned, Wagner’s description of it as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ is bound to follow. There’s an interesting story of Wagner dancing his way through it while Liszt played his piano reduction of it – oh, to be
a fly on the wall. Whatever, its most striking features are its pulverising energy in three of its movements, and its concentration on rhythm almost at the expense of anything else.
The other famous thing said about it was Weber’s claim that it showed that Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse. Even the celebrated slow movement is more interesting for its rhythm than for its melody. It almost seems that Beethoven was intent on exhausting the possibility of writing one kind of music – and subsequent composers seem to have agreed that he had, until Stravinsky arrived on the scene a century later.
9) Symphony No. 8, Op. 93 (1812)
For a long time there was agreement that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies were the big boys, while the even-numbered ones were comparatively light relief. That’s not ridiculous, but it is false, and in no case more than in No. 8. This is a compact work, mischief in every bar, pretending to be traditional, but always doing things which even as kindred a spirit as Haydn might have been shocked by.
There is something demonic in its humour, as you might expect from Beethoven at this summit of his career: those who think that ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ are opposites have the shallowness of that view ruthlessly exposed by this arch-master of emotional disruption.
10) Violin Sonata in G, Op. 96 (1812)
This, the last of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano, is a piece so glowing with good humour and gentleness that it is almost unique in Beethoven’s oeuvre. The two performers are on genial terms from the opening exchange of trills onwards, and when the violin takes off out of sheer high spirits, it is with the full support of the piano.
This self-delight is maintained throughout the work; the longest movement is the last, unusually, and is a set of variations which at one point has a typically Beethovenian fugal passage, dry and austere, which sets the benignity of the rest of the Sonata in relief.
11) Piano Trio, Op. 97, ‘Archduke’ (1814)
This is the last masterpiece of Beethoven’s ‘middle’ period, and if it had been his last work we would have felt content that he ended on so comprehensively embracing a piece. Yet the greatest were still to come. The opening melody recaps that of the First ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, but the mood is more genial, and that is maintained.
The slow movement has a rapt beauty nearly unique in Beethoven’s output, with a depth of feeling that presages what is to come. Often when this Trio is played, listeners don’t talk for some time after.
12) An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (1816)
Beethoven isn’t thought of as a major contributor to German art-song, but to all intents he founded it, composing more than 80 lieder, many of them fine but neglected. An die ferne Geliebte (‘To the distant beloved’) is his most striking achievement in this line, and the first German song cycle: six pieces, the last reinforcing the first.
On the subject of more or less helpless love, they may not be as agonised as Schubert or Schumann, but they’re plangent and equally melodious. They also show that Beethoven, whose music is almost never erotic, could express the urges he had in common with his fellow human beings, though he usually concentrated on what he regarded as nobler ones.
13) Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ (1818)
This is one of Beethoven’s two most intimidating works, and one of his greatest. It makes superhuman demands on its performer and listeners, and rewards them for a lifetime. Almost an hour long, it is ferociously compact, with a vast slow movement that plumbs the depths of agony or calm, depending on the listener.
The final movement is a gigantic fugue – a form Beethoven was by now obsessed with – on an immense, remorseless subject that virtually explodes before a few bars of peace lead back into the madness. There is no more astonishing music than this.
14) Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1820-3)
This, the last of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, brings them to a conclusion so ultimate that it’s amazing anyone has written sonatas since. It’s in only two movements, the first of which is declamatory, energetic, and not even all that great. But following that comes a set of variations which it’s hard to believe anyone could have composed.
A slow and simple melody expands into the most extraordinary rhythms, even jazzy at one point, and ascends until the pianist is playing a triple trill, louder then softer, and the whole piece comes to rest.
15) Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (1823)
Anton Diabelli was an ungifted performer who bet on immortality by writing a trivial little waltz which he sent to many composers, including Liszt and Schubert, asking for a variation on it. They obliged. Beethoven binned it, then fished it out and wrote 33 variations, his unbelievable peak of pianistic invention and inspiration.
The fecundity is such that you can listen to them daily and still find new things. The end never disappoints: after a stunning fugue, the pianist holds a chord for a long time and then moves into the most gracious, elegant minuet. This, from Beethoven!
16) Missa solemnis, Op. 123 (1819-23)
Beethoven had no fixed religious beliefs, though he liked statements of Eastern origin such as ‘I am I’. But he had a religious temperament and, having written one rather routine mass earlier, girded his loins and produced this, his largest and most intransigent work.
Whereas Bach had no religious doubts, so his works have a comforting security, Beethoven seems to be trying to bring a religion into being with his assertiveness and emphases and even desperation. There are some beautiful, even sensuous passages, and it ends with a desperate cry for (earthly) piece.
17) Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 (1822-4)
Surely everyone will agree that the first three – purely orchestral – movements of this work are the greatest symphonic movements Beethoven created. The first is crushing, the second a huge counter-attack of energy, the third a profound set of variations.
With four vocal soloists and a chorus added, the fourth movement, the great affirmation of brotherhood under a benign Father, has created the greatest division of opinion, not least due to the public uses to which it has been put. Many listeners, however, find it deeply moving.
18) Six Bagatelles for piano, Op. 126 (1824)
These short pieces, which Beethoven wrote while in the midst of composing, with enormous effort, his last and most strenuous works, must have been as much a relief for him to write as they are for us to listen to. Only one or two are regularly played, but they are all chips off a supreme master’s workshop, and are delightful.
If you feel you need something in between the sublimity of Beethoven’s most demanding and rewarding works, and the routines of everyday life, then these gently cheerful pieces provide the ideal bridge.
19) String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130 (inc. the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133) (1825-6)
The last quartets – five of them – are Beethoven’s will and testament. They are original in every way, this one with six movements, including the gigantic and rebarbative fugue as the finale. There are no external criteria to assess them by, since they are like nothing else in music.
Op. 130 has a slow movement, the Cavatina, which made Beethoven weep when he thought about it. It’s hard to envisage anyone responding differently.
20) String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826)
Stravinsky wrote of this work: ‘Everything in this masterpiece is perfect, inevitable, unalterable. It is beyond the impertinence of praise. The most affecting music of all, to me, is the beginning of the Andante moderato variation. The mood is like no other and the intensity, if it were to endure a bar longer, would be intolerable.’
It was another great composer, Wagner, who first celebrated the perfection of this work, perhaps above all the transcendental fugue with which it opens. At the end Beethoven writes a furious Allegro movement which brings us down to earth, realising that what we have been listening to earlier demands a purity of spirit which not many people can achieve or maintain.