Beethoven's Most Famous Pieces: Top 10 Compositions

May 22, 2024

cover Beethoven's Most Famous Pieces: Top 10 Compositions

Ludwig Van Beethoven was born over 250 years ago in Germany, yet he continues to be one of the most popular composers of all time, and his musical legacy lives on. Over a period of 45 years, from 1782 to his death in 1827, Beethoven composed a total of 722 pieces—on average, that's about 16 compositions every year! It can be easy to get lost among all these pieces, so we've prepared a list of Beethoven's top 10 most popular works. Whether you're discovering Beethoven's music for the first time or looking to rediscover the classics and learn some fun facts along the way, keep reading to expand your musical knowledge!

Ludwig van Beethoven’s early career as a composer

Beethoven's music training began at an early age under the guidance of his father, who was also a musician. In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna, the heart of the musical world, where he immersed himself in the vibrant cultural scene. Early on, he gained fame for his virtuosity at the piano and his powerful, expressive compositions. Influenced by the works of the great classical composers, such as Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven's style marked the transition from the Classical era to the Romantic era in music. His progressive deafness began in his late 20s, but it didn't stop him from composing some of his most admired works.

Beethoven's repertoire includes a vast array of musical forms, from symphonies and concertos to solo piano pieces. Let's explore Beethoven's top 10 pieces, and learn more about this iconic composer's music.

Top 10 most famous Beethoven songs, concertos, and symphonies

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10. Symphony No.7 in A major, Op. 92 – 2. Allegretto

Though it takes the last place on this list, the second movement of the 7th Symphony is one of the most iconic pieces of classical music. Composed between 1811 and 1812, it serves as a sharp contrast to the vibrant outer movements of this work—in fact, it's often described as a contemplative middle passage, meant to incite the listener to reflect. Throughout the piece, Beethoven builds tension with a continuous rhythmic pulse in the lower strings, pushing the music forward with a sense of inevitability. The allegretto was also featured in the popular 2010 film "The King's Speech", in particular in the climactic scene where King George VI delivers his speech upon Britain's declaration of war on Germany in World War II

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9. Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op. 13 ("Pathétique") – 1. Grave - Allegro di molto e con brio

Commonly known as the Sonata Pathétique, the 8th Piano Sonata was written in 1798 when Beethoven was in his late twenties. It represents a significant split from the classical style of his predecessors, and marks Beethoven's transition into the Romantic era. The first movement sets the tone for the entire sonata with its dramatic intensity. It starts with a slow and somber introduction, drawing the listener in with a sense of anticipation, before launching into the Allegro section, characterized by its use of dramatic flourishes. This introduction to the sonata encapsulates the turbulent and contrasting emotions represented in the sonata as a whole, and perfectly sets the stage for the next movements.

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8. Symphony No.6 in F major, Op. 68 ("Pastoral") – 1. Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Countryside

The Pastoral Symphony evokes the tranquility and beauty of the countryside, and reflects Beethoven's love for nature. It premiered alongside the more popular 5th Symphony in Vienna in 1808, at a concert lasting over 4 hours! This work stands out among the others for its programmatic content, which means that it tells a story through the scenes it depicts. The first movement situates and prepares the listeners for the pastoral journey that unfolds throughout the symphony, with each movement having its own detailed title to guide them throughout. Can you see the countryside Beethoven depicts through his music?

7. Bagatelle No.25 in A minor, WoO 59 – "Für Elise"

Ask any pianist, and they'll surely be able to play at least the first nine notes of this iconic piece! This is certainly one of the most famous pieces in music as a whole, known by professionals and non-musicians alike. But did you know that Beethoven was no longer alive when it was published? He wrote it in 1810, but it was only published in 1867, 40 years after his death. Therefore, the identity of "Elise", the woman to whom this piece was dedicated, remains unknown to this day. "Für Elise" is a bagatelle, a term used to describe a short and light-hearted instrumental piece. Despite its short length (about 3 minutes), the composition is rich in melodic and harmonic elements, demonstrating Beethoven's mastery of musical expression

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6. Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 – 1. Allegro ma non troppo

Beethoven wrote a total of nine concertos, and this is the only one written for violin. Today, it is considered an essential in the violin repertoire. Created in 1806, the violin concerto perfectly demonstrates the classical concerto form and showcases Beethoven's mastery of orchestration, thematic development, and emotional depth. The first movement, marked "Allegro ma non troppo" (Fast but not too much), serves as a grand introduction. The movement begins with a majestic orchestral introduction, where the main themes are introduced by the orchestra before the solo violin makes its entrance. Throughout the movement, Beethoven explores the thematic material introduced in the exposition, developing and expanding upon it with each iteration. The first movement of the Violin Concerto includes cadenzas—passages for the solo violin where the performer can showcase their improvisational skills, allowing them to add their own personal touch to the performance

5. Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op. 13 ("Pathétique") – 2. Adagio Cantabile

Following the dramatic intensity of the first movement of the Sonata Pathétique, the popular second movement brings a sharp contrast with its serene and gentle melody. The tempo is slow and leisurely, allowing the music to unfold with a sense of calm. Beethoven's writing in this piece is characterized by its simplicity and elegance. In traditional sonata form, this movement proposes a moment of quiet reflection to the listener, amidst the energetic music of the outer movements

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4. Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op. 67 – 3. Scherzo: Allegro

Beethoven's 5th Symphony is considered by many not only as his most famous work, but also as the most famous symphony in classical music! While the first movement is the most recognizable, the third also earns its place on the list of Beethoven's top 10 works. Powerful, energetic, and marked with dynamic contrasts, the Scherzo is most known for its punctuated rhythm, which drives the music forward, creating anticipation and perfectly transitioning into the grand finale of the symphony. After the trio section, the theme is played by the strings pizzicato, in a lighter and more whimsical manner, before launching into the concluding movement.

3. Piano Sonata No.14 in C# minor, Op. 27 No.2 ("Moonlight Sonata") – 1. Adagio sostenuto

The beloved "Moonlight Sonata" was composed in 1801, and displays Beethoven's early romantic style, with its gentle, hushed and lyrical melody. This also contrasts the traditional sonata form, by having a slow movement at the beginning, which evokes a profound sense of longing and melancholy right from the start. The extensive use of pedal throughout this piece helps blend the harmonies together, to create a hazy, dream-like scene. The "Moonlight Sonata" was dedicated to Giulietta Guicciardi, a student of Beethoven which he had fallen in love with. The nickname of the sonata comes from a music critic who, while listening to this movement, visualized the moonlight shining on a lake. This sonata truly shows Beethoven's role in the development of the romantic movement, as one of the first to take classical structures and adding his focus on personal and emotional expression.

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2. Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op. 125 ("Choral") – 4. Finale. Presto - Allegro assai

While you may not recognize this movement of Beethoven's final symphony right away, chances are you've heard the revolutionary "Ode to Joy" theme introduced later on. This movement features a text about brotherhood, joy, and unity, which is sung throughout the whole finale—something which had never been done before in a symphony. Did you know? In 1985 the European union adopted the "Ode to Joy" theme as the European anthem, chosen for its message of freedom, peace, and unity!

The fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony begins with a dramatic and powerful introduction, where Beethoven recalls themes from the previous three movements. This leads to the introduction of the iconic "Ode to Joy" theme, which Beethoven manipulates through various modulations and counterpoints. This movement brings the symphony to a triumphant and exhilarating close, and represents a monumental achievement in music history. And even more impressive: Beethoven composed this symphony between 1822 and 1824, when he was completely deaf!

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1. Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op. 67 – 1. Allegro con brio

The winner that takes the title of Beethoven's most famous work is undoubtably the first movement of the Fifth Symphony––and it's also among the most iconic works in the history of music! The well-known opening four-note motif makes it recognizable right away. This motif, consisting of three short notes followed by a long note, is famously described by Beethoven himself as "fate knocking at the door", and appears in various forms throughout the movement. Because the roman numeral of 5 is V, during the Second World War the motif was used by the Allied forces as a symbol of victory, with the slogan "V for Victory", and was often broadcasted on the radio as a symbol of resistance and victory. This work's influence extends beyond classical music, becoming embedded in popular culture as a symbol of strength and determination. It is featured on the Golden Record, a vinyl with sounds and images representing Earth sent into space by NASA in 1977, in hopes that it will find intelligent life.

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Beethoven's compositions broke new ground in musical expression, form, and content. His work bridged the Classical and Romantic periods, introducing concepts and techniques that would define the future of Western music. From symphonies that expanded the scope of orchestral expression to sonatas that explored deep psychological landscapes, Beethoven's contributions have left a lasting imprint on the fabric of music history.

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