The Three Periods of Beethoven

(jump to Second Period or Third Period)

Influences on His First Period

Beethoven studied with Haydn for two years after arriving in Vienna in 1792 and subsequently took lessons from the contrapuntist Albrechtsberger.  He also informally studied vocal composition with Gluck's disciple Antonio Salieri.  The influence of Mozart, the French Revolutionary composers, and Clementi has also been documented.

First Period

This period of composition extends from approximately 1794 to 1800, with the "Spring" Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 24, the First Symphony, and the D major Piano Sonata, Op. 28 as the major terminal works.  The piano, either in solo capacity or in a chamber ensemble, is the dominant instrument.

Piano Works

Formal experimentation, deriving from Haydn's examples, is typical of Beethoven's early piano sonatas, with their structures ranging from the quite free forms (Op. 2, No. 2) to the clarity of form of Op. 22.  The moods of the sonatas range from the tempestuousness of the two C minor sonatas to the playfulness of Op. 10, No. 2.  Many of these sonatas are technically easy, but only an accomplished pianist can do justice to Op. 10, No. 3, the finest sonata of this period.  Many of these sonatas have four movements, with the third generally termed "minuetto" but occasionally "scherzo."  Perhaps because of Clementi's influence, Beethoven's piano sonatas are the most original of his first-period compositions.  Some of the harmonic characteristics in these early works, as well as the frequent use of octaves and the thick full texture of the piano writing, may have been suggested to Beethoven by the piano sonatas of  Clementi.
Chamber Works
Beethoven's classicism is strongest in his chamber music for or with winds.  After his Septet, Op. 20 and the Serenade, Op. 25, he abandoned this medium.

His chamber music for strings consists of several duet sonatas of which the Op. 24 violin sonata is the most popular, a group of trios of which Op. 3 is really a divertimento, and the six string quartets, Op. 18, of which the first, fourth, and sixth are the most interesting.  The quartets demonstrate how well Beethoven had learned from Haydn's example the art of developing motives and animating the texture by means of counterpoint; yet these quartets are no mere imitations, for Beethoven's individuality is evident in the character of the themes, the frequent unexpected turns of  phrase, the unconventional modulations, and some subtleties of formal structure.

Orchestral Works
Orchestral music includes two rather conventional piano concertos (Opp. 15 and 17, the latter composed first) and the First Symphony.  Its introduction was thought radical, for Beethoven omitted stating the unison tonic at the opening and began by going to the subdominant, establishing his tonic by circumscribing it.  The second movement contains contrapuntal tours de force, a legacy of his study with Albrechtsberger; the third movement is a full-blown scherzo though entitled "minuetto," and the finale has the playfulness of Haydn's last movements.  The First is the most Classical of the nine symphonies.  Its spirit and many of its technical features stem from Haydn.  Beethoven's originality is evident in the details of his treatment of the formal structures and in the unusual prominence given to the woodwinds, in the character of the third movement -- a scherzo, though labeled a minuet -- and especially in the long and important codas of the other movements.  The careful attention to dynamic shading is also an essential element to Beethoven's style.
Transitional Works
The transitional works leading to Beethoven's second period were written during his progressive loss of hearing.  Of the principal works of this transitional period, the piano sonatas between Op. 26 and Op. 31 show most clearly the dissolution of the composer's earliest style and his groping for new means of expression. The "Moonlight" and "Tempest" sonatas are among these.

Other works of this transitional period are the violin sonatas of Op. 30, the powerful Op. 37 piano concerto, and the Second Symphony.  In this symphony, the most novel elements are the lengthy slow introduction to the first movement and the finale, whose capriciousness and playfulness exceed Haydn's.  This symphony has large dimensions and a profusion of thematic material held together in perfect formal balance.  The scherzo and finale, like the first movement, are full of Beethovenian energy and fire.  The finale is written in an enlarged sonata form, with suggestions of rondo in extra recurrences of the first theme.  The coda is twice as long as the development section and introduces a new theme.

The "Kreutzer" Sonata for violin and piano (Op. 47) is the terminal work of this first transitional period.

Second Period

(jump to First Period or Third Period)

Most of Beethoven's popular works come from this period (1800 to 1815), which begins with the Third (Eroica) Symphony and ends with such works as the "Emperor" Concerto and the incidental music to Goethe's drama "Egmont."  To this group of works belong the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies (the Seventh and Eighth being considered transitional); his most and least popular concertos; his only opera, "Fidelio"; some overtures; most of his songs; and the three string quartets of Op. 59; but very few piano sonatas.

Piano Works

The piano sonatas of the second period show a wide range of styles and forms.  Among the earliest, dating from about 1802, are the Sonata in A flat with the funeral march, Op. 26, and the two sonatas of Op. 27, each designated as "quasi una fantasia"; the second is the one popularly known as the "Moonlight Sonata" (sometimes considered a transitional piece from his first period).

Outstanding among the sonatas of the second period are Op. 53 in C major (called the "Waldstein" after one of Beethoven's patrons) and Op. 57 in F minor, commonly called the "Appassionata."  Both were composed in 1804.  Each has the usual Classical three movements in the order fast -- slow -- fast; each exhibits the patterns of sonata-form, rondo, or variations, with appropriate key-schemes.  But their formal order has, as it were, been expanded from within by the force of Beethoven's musical imagination, expressed in themes of elemental power that require a structure of hitherto unknown tension and concentration to support their natural development and completion.

After the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" there were no more sonatas from Beethoven for five years.  To the year 1809 belong both the Sonata in F#, Op. 78, and the quasi-programmatic Sonata Op. 81a.


Beethoven's songs, a good many of which date from his middle period, are the most neglected of his compositions.  Their air of nobility is most successful in the settings of devotional texts (Op. 48).  The songs stem from and are the culmination of the heritage of J. F. Reichardt and other north German composers, rather than being precursors of the Lieder of Schubert.


The opera "Fidelio" was composed at about the same time as the Third Symphony and is similar to it in character.  As far as the libretto is concerned, "Fidelio" is a rescue opera of the kind that was so popular at the turn of the century.

This opera gave Beethoven more trouble than any other of his works. The first performances of the original three-act version took place in November of 1805, just after the French armies had marched into Vienna; rearranged and shortened to two acts, the opera was brought out again the following March (1806), but immediately withdrawn.  Finally, in 1814, a third version, with still more extensive revisions, was successful.  In the course of all these changes Beethoven wrote no fewer than four different overtures for the opera.  The first one was never used, being replaced at the performances of 1805 by the overture now called "Leonora No. 2"; this one in turn was replaced by "Leonora No. 3" for the revival in 1806; and the final version of the opera in 1814  Beethoven wrote still another, now known as the "Fidelio" overture.  ("Leonora No. 3" is the one most often heard now in concerts.)

His difficulties were not merely like those he had to overcome in his instrumental works; his problems were further complicated by the presence of a text.  Beethoven knew well enough how to write for voices, but his thought moved habitually on such a lofty plane that he found it exceedingly difficult to make music for a text which, like the usual opera libretto, is concerned with the small doings of individuals in particular situations.  Therefore, in those parts of "Fidelio" that are like any ordinary opéra comique or singspiel, Beethoven is ill at ease; only when the words suggest grander emotions and universal ideas does he speak with all his natural power.

Chamber Works
The three string quartets of Op. 59 are dedicated to Count Rasumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna.  As a compliment to the Count, Beethoven introduced a Russian melody as the principal theme of the finale of the first quartet, and another in the third movement of the second.  These three quartets, composed in the summer and autumn of 1806, occupy an important position in Beethoven's work -- they are the first to exemplify the composer's mature style and characteristic manner of expression in this medium.  They are full of the emotional fire, boldness of formal treatment, and striking originality that characterize Beethoven's second period.

In the quartets of Op. 59, as well as in the Eroica Symphony, the sonata form is expanded to unheard-of proportions by the multitude of themes, the long and complex developments, and the extended codas which take on the dimensions and significance of a second development section.  Along with this expansion, Beethoven intentionally conceals the formerly clear dividing lines between the various parts of a movement.  These developments continue throughout the whole of Beethoven's second period, but the change is more radical in the quartets and piano sonatas than in the less intimate symphonies and overtures.

Orchestral Works
The Third Symphony was a revolutionary work of such unprecedented length and complexity that audiences at first found it difficult to grasp.  In place of the usual slow second movement it has a funeral march in C minor with a contrasting section in C major, of tragic grandeur and pathos.  The finale is a set of variations with fugally developed episodes and coda, in an extremely complex but thoroughly logical form.  The first movement begins, after two introductory chords, with one of the simplest imaginable themes on the the notes of the E-flat major triad, which Beethoven subjects to endless variation and development in the course of the movement.  Five other themes are presented in the exposition, and the development section brings in still another, which recurs in the coda.  Most remarkable, however, in this movement, as in all of Beethoven's, is neither formal pattern nor the abundance of ideas, but the way in which all the material is propelled constantly along, one theme seeming to unfold out of another in a steady dynamic growth which mounts from one climax to the next, driving with a sense of utter inevitability to the end.  This capacity to organize a large amount of contrating material into a unified musical whole is one of the chief marks of Beethoven's greatness.

The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies were all composed between 1806 and 1808, a time of exceptional productivity.  Beethoven seems to have worked on the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies at the same time; the first two movements of the Fifth, in fact, were already in existence before the Fourth was completed.  The two works contrast, as though Beethoven wished to express simultaneously two opposite poles of feeling.

The Fourth Symphony, a contrasting and delightful interlude before the Fifth, is unjustly neglected, like virtually all of his works in B-flat major.  Joviality and humor mark the Fourth, while the Fifth has always been interpreted as the musical projection of Beethoven's resolution "I will grapple with Fate; it shall not overcome me."

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony is dominated by the four-note motive so impressively announced in the opening measures, and the same motive recurs in one guise or another in the other three movements as well.  The transition from minor to major takes place in an inspired passage which leads without a break from the scherzo into the finale, where the entrance of the full orchestra with trombones on the C major chord has an electrifying effect.  The finale of the Fifth also employs a piccolo and a contra-bassoon, in addition to the trombones and the normal complement of strings, woodwind, brass, and kettledrums.  Beethoven achieves, to a degree, a certain cyclic relationship, rhythmic as well as thematic, between the movements of this symphony.

The Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony was composed immediately after the Fifth and the two were first played on the same program in December, 1808.  Each of the five movements bears a descriptive title suggesting a scene from life in the country.  Beethoven adapts his descriptive program to the usual Classical symphonic form, merely inserting after the scherzo (Merrymaking of the Peasants) an extra movement (Storm) which serves to introduce the finale (Thankful feelings after the storm).  In the coda of the Andante movement (Scene by the brook), flute, oboe, and clarinet join harmoniously in imitating bird calls.  All this programmatic apparatus is subordinate to the expansive, leisurely musical form of the Symphony as a whole.  The composer himself warns that the descriptions are not to be taken literally.

These symphonies show Beethoven's increasing impatience with the limitations of the instrumental technique of his time.  He demanded virtuosic facility from his orchestral musicians.  Examples can be seen in the demanding horn parts of the "Eroica" Symphony and "Fidelio," as well as in the technique called for in the string bass part of the trio of the third movement of the Fifth Symphony.  Beethoven also freed the trumpets and timpani from their previous noies-making and rhythm-emphasizing functions.  He was not, however, considered a great orchestrator.

Among the concertos, the G major Piano Concerto (No. 4) is one of Beethoven's most serene and contemplative works, whereas the Fifth in E flat major ("Emperor") is one of his most triumphant compositions.  His "Triple Concerto," Op. 56, for piano, violin, and cello, is considered a minor work.

The concertos of Beethoven are related to those of Mozart.  Beethoven retained the division of the concerto into three movements and the general outline of the Classical form;  but he expanded the framework, and intensified the content.  The virtuosity of the solo part is more marked than in Mozart's concertos, but is not excessive in view of the expanded dimensions.  In Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Op. 61 in D major (composed in 1806), the solo part is ideally interwoven with the orchestra.

Beethoven's Overtures, written chiefly for dramas but transcending their original function as curtain-raisers, are among the principal ancestors of the symphonic poem.  Among the best are the previously cited "Leonore No. 3"; the overture to "Coriolan", a characteristic C minor work; and the overture to Goethe's drama "Egmont," for which Beethoven also wrote the incidental music frequently called for in the drama.

Transitional Works
Beethoven's second transitional period is an experimental period and also the time when the composer's popularity was at its zenith.  Among the major works of this period are the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the "Archduke" piano trio, the piano sonatas between Op. 78 and Op. 90, and the the string quartets Op. 74 and Op. 95, as well as some lesser-known works like the Choral Fantasia, the Mass in C, and "Wellington's Victory" Op. 91.

During this period Beethoven wrote genuinely neo-Classic works;  the F-sharp and G major piano sonatas, Opp. 78 and 79, and the Eighth Symphony -- homages to the past with an eye on the future.  His other major works of this period are experimental;  the Seventh Symphony with its monothematic first movement and its preoccupation with rhythm; the virtually athematic first movement of the Op 74, or "Harp" quartet; and the Op. 95 quartet with its remote, enharmonic modulations, intensely concentrated first movement, and almost Rossinian conclusion.

The Piano Sonata Op. 90 (1814) is a work bordering on Beethoven's third period;  it has only two movements, an Allegro in E minor in concise sonata form and a long, leisurely sonata-rondo Andante in E major, which is one of Beethoven's happiest lyric inspirations.

Third Period

(jump to First Period or Second Period)

The years up to 1815 were, on the whole, peaceful and prosperous for Beethoven.  His music was much played in Vienna, and he was celebrated both at home and abroad, but his deafness became a more and more serious trial.  As it caused him to lose contact with others, he retreated into himself, becoming morose, and morbidly suspicious even toward his friends.  Family troubles, ill health, and unfounded apprehensions of poverty were also plaguing Beethoven, and it was only a supreme effort of will that he continued composing amidst all these troubles.

The last five piano sonatas were written between 1816 and 1821;  the "Missa solemnis" was completed in 1822, the "Diabelli" variations in 1823, and the Ninth Symphony in 1824, each after long years of labor; and the last quartets, Beethoven's musical testament, followed in 1825 and 1826.

His compositions of the third period more and more come to have a meditative character.  The language becomes more concentrated, more abstractExtremes meet:  the sublime and the grotesque side by side in the Mass and the Ninth Symphony, the profound and the apparently naive side by side in the last quartets.

Piano Works

Completed and published in 1823 were the "Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli," Op. 120.  These differ from other variations of the late 18th or early 19th centuries in that they are made up not of comparatively straightforward alterations in the physiognomy of the theme, but of transformations in its very character. Each variation is built on motives derived from some part of the theme, but altered in rhythm, tempo, dynamics, or context so as to produce a new design.  The "Diabelli" variations were the model for Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes," and Brahms' "Variations of a Theme of Handel."

Beethoven overwhelmed the limits of Classical form in his sonata movements by blurring the demarcations between sections and theme-groups and in creating such gigantic structures as is evidenced in the first movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 106 (Hammerclavier).

Choral Works

The most imposing works of the last period are the Mass in D ("Missa solemnis") and the Ninth Symphony.  The former is, with the exception of Bach's Mass in B-minor, the worthiest musical interpretation of this text that exists.  Beethoven himself regarded it as his greatest work.  The score incorporates historic musical and liturgical symbols to an extent far greater, and in a manner far more detailed, than an uninformed listener can be aware of.  Like Bach's Mass, Beethoven's is too long and elaborate for ordinary liturgical use;  it is rather a huge vocal and instrumental symphony using the text of the Mass as its fabric.  Yet it is more than merely a "setting" of the words; one might better call it a representation, both pictorial and symbolic, of the whole liturgy of the Mass.

The choral treatment owes something to Handel.  One theme of the "Dona nobis pacem" is adapted from Handel's melody to the words "And He shall reign forever and ever' in the Hallelujah Chorus.  Beethoven's Mass is a planned musical unit, a symphony in five movements, one on each of the five principal divisions of the Ordinary of the Mass.  In this respect it is like the late Masses of Haydn, and like them also it freely combines and alternates solo voices and chorus in each movement.  Beethoven's attention to requirements of musical form occasionally leads him to take liberties with the liturgical text, such as the repetition of the opening sentence "Gloria in excelsis Deo" at the end of the second movement, or the rondo-like recurrences of the word "Credo" with its musical motive in the third movement.

Beethoven seizes every phrase, every single word that offers him a possibility for dramatic musical expression and weaves it into the vast and wonderfully organized structure of the work.

Chamber Works
The composition of the five final string quartets occupied Beethoven between 1822 and 1826, but the actual time he spent on them is closer to two years than four.  They are as follows:
Op. 127 in E-flat - completed February 1825
Op. 132 in A minor - completed July 1825
Op. 130 in B-flat - completed November 1825
Op. 131 in C-sharp minor - completed July 1826
Op. 135 in F - completed October 1826
(Op. 130 in B-flat - substitute finale - completed in November 1826)
The three Quartets, Opp. 127, 132, and 130, arose from a commission from the Russian Prince Galitzin.  All three were completed in 1825.  While there are similarities between them, each is very different from the others.  They differ most obviously in their overall organization.  Op. 127 is in four movementsOp. 132 has five; and Op. 130 in its huge original form has six movements.  One similarity is that in each quartet a deeply felt slow movement is followed without transition by incongruous material.  Frequent use of song elements -- folk or operatic -- or songlike melody, together with the written word in the form of titles, tempo indications, and general performance instructions, attempt to communicate the essence of the musical experience.

In the first movement of the Op. 130 Quartet, of average length for this period, there are sixteen tempo changes and six changes of key signature, ranging from six flats to two sharps.  These two signatures, representing the flat submediant and major mediant relationships of the tonic key of B-flat major, give further evidence of the composer's predilections, already present in his second period, for modulations by thirds in his sonata-form expositions.

The two remaining quartets, in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 and in F, Op. 135, are so different that they seem to have sprung from different parents.  Op. 131 is the furthest removed from Classical models, having seven movements, each of which flows without pause into the next.  It has been described as a "patchwork" and includes the textures and structures of fugue, sonata, and theme and variations, as well as over twenty indications of  tempo change, not counting "ritard" and "a tempo."  There is also a constant underlay of thematic connection between movements.

On the other hand, Op. 135 would seem like a step back in time were the language not so clearly that of late Beethoven.

Orchestral Works
The Ninth Symphony was first performed on May 7, 1824.  Its most striking novelty is the use of chorus and solo voices in the finale.  It is significant of Beethoven's ethical ideals that in choosing the stanzas (from Schiller's "Ode to Joy") to be used he selected those that emphasize two ideas:  the universal brotherhood of man through joy, and its basis in the love of an eternal heavenly Father.

Beethoven was troubled by the apparent incongruity of introducing voices as the climax of a long instrumental symphony.  His solution of this esthetic difficulty determined the unusual form of the last movement:  1) a brief tumultuous dissonant introduction; 2) a review and rejection (by instrumental recitatives) of the themes of the preceding movements; 3) suggestion of the joy theme and its joyful acceptance; 4) orchestral exposition of the theme in four stanzas, crescendo, with coda; 5) again the tumultuous dissonant opening measures; 6) bass recitative: "O friends, not these tones, but let us rather sing more pleasant and joyful ones"; 7) choral-orchestral exposition of the joy theme in four stanzas, varied, and with a long orchestral interlude (double fugue) before a repetition of the first stanza; 8) new theme, orchestra and chorus; 9) double fugue on the two themes; 10) and a complex, gigantic coda, in which the "heaven-descended flame" of Joy is hailed in strains of matchless sublimity.

The first three movements of the symphony are on a comparably grand scale.  The scherzo, in particular, is an outstanding example of Beethoven's ability ot organize an entire movement in sonata form around a single rhythmic motive.

Characteristics of Beethoven's Late Style
One characteristic of Beethoven's late style is the deliberate working out of themes and motives to the utmost of their potentialities.  It reflects a new conception of the possibilities of thematic variation.

Another feature of Beethoven's late style is a continuity he achieved by intentionally blurring dividing lines:  within a musical sentence, by making cadential progressions terminate on a weak beat, by delaying the progression of the lower voices, placing the third or the fifth of the tonic chord in the upper voice at such a resolution, or by otherwise concealing the cadential effect;  within a movement, by interpenetration of Introduction and Allegro or making the Introduction a part of the Allegro; even within a complete work, by interpenetration of movements.

A feeling of vastness comes also from the wide-spaced harmonic arches and the leisurely march of the of melodies.  At times all motion pauses for long moments of reflection; such passages have the character of improvisation.

The abstract, suprapersonal quality of Beethoven's late style is symbolized by the increased extent and importance of contrapuntal textures in the compositions of the third period.  It is apparent in the numerous canonic imitations and generally contrapuntal voice-leading of all the late works;  it is evidenced specifically by fugatos incorporated in development sections and by complete fugal movements.  Examples are the "Grosse Fuge" for string quartet Op. 133, the fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo of the Mass in D (Missa solemnis), and the two double fugues in the finale of the Ninth Symphony.

Another incidental consequence of the abstract quality of Beethoven's last works was the invention of new sonorities:  as the former habits of vertical tone combination were modified by the rigorous logic of contrapuntal lines, or as new ideas required new alignments of sound for their realization, he produced unaccustomed effects.  The widely-spaced piano sonorities at the end of the Sonata Op. 110, the partition of the theme between the two violins (on the principle of the medieval hocket) in the fourth movement of the C#-minor Quartet, and the extraordinary dark coloring of the orchestra and chorus of the Ninth Symphony are instances of such sonorities.

As with Classical texture and sonority, so with Classical form in the instrumental works of Beethoven's third period.  Examples are the Sonata Op. 111 has only two movements, while the Quartet Op. 131 has seven movements, and the Quartet Op. 130 has the number and order of movements more like a serenade.  In all of Beethoven's late sonatas and quartets both the musical material and its treatment are so different from those of Haydn and Mozart that resemblances to Classical patterns are at most incidental.