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Weekend Ramble – My Top 5 Works of Beethoven
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Weekend Ramble – My Top 5 Works of Beethoven

This past week brought us an oft-overlooked day of significance for music lovers. Buried amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is a day that receives far too little recognition and even less celebration. I am talking, of course, about December 16th: Beethoven’s birthday.

This year marks a particular milestone: born in 1770, we are observing Beethoven’s 250th. Still, it came and went without fanfare. In an effort to rectify this appalling lack of attention, I would like to shine the spotlight briefly on the master composer and humbly submit my top five works of Beethoven.

Number 5 – Symphony number 6 – “Pastoral”

As detailed in a previous post, the sixth symphony was my introduction into the world of Ludwig Van Beethoven. It depicts scenes of nature, brilliantly expressed via music: the countryside, a brook, birds singing, and most vividly – a violent thunderstorm and the calm that follows. To describe such scenes so beautifully via the art of music alone – without penning a word, without one stroke of a paintbrush – truly shows his genius.

Number 4 – The Egmont Overture

So you’re interested in getting to know the works of Beethoven, but don’t want to invest the better part of an hour to listen to one single piece? The Egmont is a great place to start. It clocks in at just under nine minutes (roughly equivalent to 2.3 pop songs) and it’s a great example of his method of starting slow, teasing with the promise of coming grandeur and then delivering on that promise.

Number 3 – The Emporer Concerto

Years ago, a since-forgotten friend, knowing my fondness for Beethoven, gifted me with a copy of The Emporer Concerto on cassette tape. At that point, I was ignorant of what constitutes a concerto. The Emporer, being a piano concerto, conjured thoughts of endless piano solos. I was less than thrilled. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the concerto format features the named instrument (in this case, the piano) supported, in no small measure, by an orchestra.

The Emporer is a piece of music that you’ll find familiar, even if you never gave it an intentional listen. It is often used in movie soundtracks and the like. To me, its most intriguing feature comes in the third and final movement where the piano and orchestra alternate taking the lead, repeating three times variations on the same musical motif, each iteration more sophisticated than the last. It is fascinating.

Number 2 – Symphony Number 9 – “Choral”

It’s a daunting task to devote over an hour to intently listening to one piece of music. And I’ll admit to “skipping to the end” on occasion, omitting the first three (and sometimes four) movements. But that is like skipping the meal to get to the dessert – which is not how the ninth symphony is intended to be heard. The ninth masterfully takes the listener from the chaotic to the sublime in five steps, with each step building on the prior. The fourth movement opens with a brief recap – harkening back to elements from each of the prior three – before moving on to the familiar and striking “Ode to Joy.” The fifth and final movement continues with the Ode, and adds the human voice – the only one of his symphonies to do so. Thus the name “Choral.” It is – at the risk of over-usage of the word – sublime.

Number 1 – Symphony Number 5

I’m not sure when it was that this work ascended to the top of my list. For many years the Ninth held that spot, and it is still a very narrow margin. But I became fascinated by the use of the motif repeated throughout the entire piece. An irony that this very motif is what kept me from giving the Fifth an unbiased listen for many years. I’m speaking, of course of the “dit dit dit dah” for which this work is so well-known. It’s familiarity and over-use gave the impression – to me, at least – of a second-rate piece of music, best suited for advertisements and other such silliness. Eventually, the incongruity of my esteem for the composer and my disdain for one of his best-known works convinced me that I should judge the Fifth on its own merits.

I mentioned earlier Beethoven’s penchant for teasing a coming payoff. Nowhere is this more evident than in the transition from the third movement to the fourth. It is nothing short of chilling. The fourth and final movement brings us home with non-stop awe-inspiring pure energy. It is the promise delivered and it does not disappoint.

So there you have it: my top five favorites from Beethoven. If you haven’t ventured into the world of his music, you should give it a try. And what better time than the 250th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Ludwig.

Listen. Enjoy.

Bonus Track.

  • I became aware of the significance of this date long before I became a fan of the man and his music. I became aware of Beethoven’s birthday because I was a fan of another great man and his work: Charles M. Schulz and his comic strip, Peanuts. Shulz’s character Schroeder idolized Beethoven and I suspect Schulz did too.


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