The Best of Beethoven’s Instrumental Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A look at the best of Beethoven’s instrumental music, including his famous symphonies and piano sonatas.


Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist, who is arguably the defining figure in the history of Western music.

Born in the city of Bonn in the Electorate of Cologne, in the Holy Roman Empire, he displayed his musical talents at an early age and was taught by Christian Gottlob Neefe, the Court Organist. At the age of 21 he moved to Vienna, where he began studying composition with Joseph Haydn and gained a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. He lived in Vienna until his death.

Beethoven’s compositions span the transition from the classical period to the romantic era in classical music. They include 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 1 violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, his great Mass the Missa Solemnis, and one opera, Fidelio. His final work, unfinished at his death, was the Symphony No. 9 in D minor “Choral”, which is regarded as one of his masterpieces and one of the greatest works of all time.

Beethoven is one of the most celebrated and influential composers in history; indeed Wagner said of him that “with Bach dies an epoch”.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)

Beethoven’s third symphony, the “Eroica,” is considered one of his greatest works. It was composed in 1803 and dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. However, after Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French, Beethoven tore up the title page in anger and instead dedicated the work to “a great man.” The symphony is divided into four movements:

-Allegro con brio
-Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
-Scherzo: Allegro vivace
-Finale: Allegro molto

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most popular and well-known pieces of classical music. It is also one of the most performed symphonies. The work was composed between 1804 and 1808, and was first performed in December 1808. Beethoven dedicated the work to Prince Lobkowitz and Baron Pasqualati, his patrons at the time.

The symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto
IV. Finale: Allegro

The first movement, in C minor, is in sonata form and is noted for its memorable opening theme, which reappears throughout the movement. The second movement, in F major, is a lyrical theme and variations movement. The third movement, in C minor, is a scherzo and trio), with a light-hearted feel. The fourth movement, also in C minor, returns to the serious tone of the first movement, with a driving finale that leads to a triumphant C major coda.

Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”)

The Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, also known as the Pastoral Symphony (German: Pastorale), is a symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven and completed in 1808. One of Beethoven’s few works containing explicitly programmatic content, the symphony was first performed in the Theater an der Wien on 22 December 1808 in a four-hour concert. Marked by his affinity for classical antiquity and country life, Beethoven drew inspiration from his memories of countryside holidays spent with his family at their farmstead north of Bonn; these he described as “idyllic and harmonious”.

The work then sailed through its first public performance relatively unscathed, with only a few voices expressing mild surprise at its innovative character. Today, the “Pastoral” Symphony is recognized as one of Beethoven’s most important works – an embodiment of the composer’s own ideals of humanity and nature.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, composed between 1822 and 1824. It was first performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824. The symphony is regarded by many critics and musicologists as one of the greatest works of western classical music; it is said to mark the turning point between the Classical and Romantic eras of musical history. The symphony was commissioned by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, which gave the first performance under conductor Nikolaus Johannsen; it quickly became immensely popular, competing on more or less equal terms with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1803–04) as one of his most celebrated works.

The Ninth Symphony is in four movements. The first movement begins with an instruction in German to sing “Freude” ( Joy), setting for a choral setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, which continues almost uninterrupted for about two-thirds of the movement’s duration. The second movement is a mostly subdued scherzo and trio, marked by frequent changes of meter. By contrast, the third movement is a vigorous march, written in 6/8 time that recalls aspects both of Beethoven’s opera Leonora (1799) and patriotic divertimenti written during the French Revolutionary Wars that were intended to boost morale on the battlefield; it was described at its premiere as “like cannonading”.

The finale then returns to notions explored in earlier movements: two main subject areas are contrasted—the first lyrical and reflective (in 3/4 time), initially led by clarinet and eventually answered by a vigorous call to arms from full orchestra (in 2/4 time). This eventually leads to a massive crescendo on a dominant pedal point—a simple bass drum rumble in D major which gradually accelerates into frenzy until almost all instruments are playing at once—preceding a quiet reflection on themes from all four previous movements; this last section quotes directly from Schiller’s poem “An die Freude”, after which each instrument plays its own part fugally as before leading out into silence..

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

The Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, is a concerto for violin and orchestra by Ludwig van Beethoven. The work is nicknamed the “Emperor Concerto”. It was composed in 1803–1804 and premiered in 1805 with Franz Clement as soloist and Beethoven himself conducting, though the autograph score is dated 1804. The concerto is structured in three movements:

Allegro ma non troppo
The first movement, in D major, Allegro ma non troppo, is structured in a standard layout of fast-slow-fast: an opening Allegro section followed by a central Adagio molto espressivo and closing Presto section. Beethoven wrote this music while living with his patron Prince Lichnowsky in Baden bei Wien just outside Vienna; it was probably not composed for performance but to improve his standing as a composer of instrumental music. The autograph score editing contains a fair number of changes concerning articulation (staccato/legato etc.), dynamics (fff/ppp etc.) and tempo markings (adagio molto expressivo/adagio).

The second movement, in C♯ minor shades into C♭ minor towards the end of the piece), marked Larghetto affettuoso espressivo (Slow and affectingly expressive), is written from beginning to end for solo violin with no accompaniment from other instruments. ThisAdagio molto espressivo comes close to being a cantabile movement from start to finish – one that singers would feel comfortable tackling – were it not for some quick twiddles in the middle at around bar 45 or so which are reminiscent of similar passages elsewhere by Hummel or Johann Baptist Wanhal without seriously impeding the flow of musical thought. The final Allegretto closes with an ascending chromatic scale figure on first violin joined by descending triplets on second violin followed immediately by descending chromatic scales on both instruments that add greatly to the sense of finality when matched to the tremolando chords on piano.

Rondo alla tedesca: Allegretto moderato – Poco più allegretto – Prestissimo
The last movement reverts to the home key of Dmajor (as well as tonic major mode instead ofdominant/minor), Rondo alla tedesca: Allegretto moderato – Poco più allegretto -Prestissimo The basic character here is German dancelike – or Allemande-like – but italso has hints of Tarantella about it too.[citation needed] A typical performance takes about 28 minutes.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”)

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, also known as the “Emperor” Concerto, was written between 1809 and 1811 by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was first performed on 28 November 1811 in Vienna with Beethoven himself as soloist. The concerto is scored for piano solo and an orchestra consisting of flute, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat and C (doubling on basset horns), two bassoons (doubling on contrabassoons), four horns in E-flat and C, two trumpets in C, timpani and strings.

The concerto is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of the Western musical canon, and it is frequently included on lists of the greatest works of all time.


As we conclude our look at the best of Beethoven’s instrumental music, we must once again emphasize the immense variety andrange of his output. In addition to the piano sonatas and concertos, there are the string quartets, symphonies, overtures, and other orchestral works; the piano trios and violin sonatas; the solo piano music; and finally, the miscellaneous pieces for various combinations of instruments. Indeed, it is difficult to think of another composer who wrote so much great instrumental music in such a wide variety of genres.

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