Beethoven’s Most Famous Piano Pieces

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the most influential composers in history, and a major figure in the transition from the Classical period of Western music to the Romantic period. His work remains some of the most popular and influential music in the world, especially his piano music.

Moonlight Sonata (op. 27 no. 2)

The Moonlight Sonata is the more well-known name of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor. It was completed in 1801 and dedicated to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a pupil of his, in 1802. It remains one of Beethoven’s most popular piano works, especially the haunting first movement with its sad melody played against the familiar ostinato triplet rhythm. It’s the kind of soothingly beautiful but sad piano piece that can almost place a listener into a state of hypnosis.

Here is a beatiful version for cello and piano. Hope you like it…

Less well known but still worth a listen is the comparatively cheerful second movement and the heavier, stormier third movement. The second movement is a fairly conventional and straightforward scherzo and trio in D-flat major, while the third movement revisits the key and melodies of the first movement in a fast and slightly angry presto. It’s also very difficult to play, especially when compared to the relatively simple and more recognizable first movement.

Pathetique Sonata (Op. 13)

Beethoven wrote the Pathetique Sonata (or Sonata Pathetique as it is more commonly known) in 1798 at the age of 27. It is one of the few works that the composer himself named, officially calling it Grande sonate pathétique. “Grande” is a great way to describe this piece, as it has a much “bigger” feel than the Moonlight Sonata while still maintaining the sadness and almost contemplative nature of much of the composer’s work. The first movement starts with a slow expository theme that before long gives way to a much faster and explosive melody that covers two octaves and switches keys from C minor to G minor to F minor. It’s a dramatic and aggressive movement that requires a lot of talent to play well.

The second movement will be far more familiar to the casual listener. It is a slow movement that features a very familiar cantabile melody played in A-flat major. The piece returns to this melody frequently, and even when the piece itself modulates to different minor keys, the cantabile melody is always played in A-flat major. The movement itself is a nice, soothing counterpoint to the faster and more aggressive first movement. The third movement returns to a faster rondo that contains elements of the first two movements, thereby tying the entire sonata together. Although it is the second movement that most listeners remember, the piece works beautifully as a three-movement sonata. All three movements should be listened to in order to get the full effect of this amazing work.

Sonatina in G (Anh. 5, no. 2)

The authenticity of the Sonatina in G Major as a Beethoven piece has been called into question. The piece was actually published after the composer’s death, leading many historians to doubt whether or not he actually composed it. Nevertheless, it is a well-known piece that is frequently performed today. It is actually split in two sections that are meant to be played as two separate movements, although the entire piece itself is short enough that it is often played as a single work with no interruption between the sections.

As the title suggests, the piece is a pleasant one played in G Major. The first section is titled Moderato, and it is intended to be played in 4/4 time at a moderate tempo. The second movement is written in 6/8 time and is titled Romance. Despite the tempo change, the two movements are very similar. The main melodies are very much the same, and the casual listener may not notice the tempo change as it’s far more subtle than such time signature changes often are.

Sonata Op. 57 (Appassionata)

This piece was written by Beethoven between 1804 and 1806. It was published in 1807 and dedicated to Count Franz von Brunswick. It was given the unofficial title Appassionata in 1838 as it is considered one of the most emotionally tempestuous of Beethoven’s piano works. The piece itself is in three movements and lasts about 23 minutes when performed in its entirety.

The Appassionata was written when Beethoven was coming to terms with the fact that he was going deaf, and the frustration that he no doubt felt can be heard throughout the piece. The first movement consists of slow, ominous melodies played in minor keys that gives way to loud, intense and fast melodies that convey a sense of emotional intensity. Despite the anger that the composer seemed to be feeling when he was working on this piece, a hint of the more heroic music of Beethoven’s past can be heard. These moments rarely last long, and they quickly give way to darker and more ominous sounds.

Things quiet down in the second movement, which is based on a theme written in D-flat major. It’s much simpler than the first movement, and it is more introspective where the first movement was fiery and intense. It makes for a nice counterpoint. The third movement returns to the emotional intensity of the first movement with a fast, rather chaotic exercise in perpetual motion. There are several cadenzas and fast runs that seem to go nonstop for several measures at a time. The listener can almost sense the frustration that the composer must have been feeling when he was writing this piece.