Beethoven has a multi-faceted legacy. To some, he’s the revolutionary genius who broke the structures and norms of music and heralded in a new era of self-expression. To some, he’s the first true musical romantic hero, dark and brooding and misunderstood, a true symbol of everything 19th century art began to stand for. And then to others, he’s a caricature of himself – a fiery, bad-tempered artist who wrote the 5th symphony and shook his fist at the sky on his death-bed. This last image seems to be the most often-encountered in popular culture and among those who only know his most popular works – which is a shame, because more often than not Beethoven was a true poet who knew how to employ the softest tones, the most haunting quasi-medieval-sounding chords, and the most extended of silences to stretch the listener’s emotions to a poignant breaking point. Beethoven wasn’t all fire and rage. Some of his best works are lyrical, soft-spoken, elegant, and slow.
This is best show-cased in the middle-movements of his sonatas, symphonies, and concertos. Traditionally, in classical structure, any time a piece has three or four movements, the one in the middle tends to be slow. Adagio, andante, largo. Beethoven had an unusual knack of using these slow movements to elevate the artistic character of the entire work from substantial to absolutely divine. Can you imagine the Moonlight Sonata without its famous slow movement, or the 5th symphony without its yearning and unforgettable slow movement? No, neither could I. To remove them would be to make the pieces heavy-handed and almost hollow.
But while he was always skilled in writing slow movements, his approach to them had a gradual evolution. Here are 11 examples of some of the best slow works he ever wrote, and how they compare to each-other. (Please do give each one a listen! They’re all highly worth it.)
And of course, this list is by no means exhaustive (not even close). These are just significant examples – but a slightly deeper search into this topic will yield many many more slow pieces just as significant and beautiful as the ones listed below. These just happen to be some of my favorites.
While this may not technically be the best slow movement he ever written, it’s significant because it’s the first piano sonata slow movement he wrote (that we know of) and it’s truly a remarkable piece. It combines elements of a sweet, childish nostalgia, a strict adherence to classical norms, a slight quirkiness that already indicates the rebellious nature his artistic character will mature into, and the subtle self-consciousness of a supremely talented but inexperienced composer who at the time was studying (grudgingly) with the musical giant Josef Haydn. It’s poignant, lovely, and very telling.
Beethoven’s piano sonata slow movements got heavier and meatier over time. By the time he wrote his Opus 10 sonatas, his slow movements had developed into lengthy and ponderous, often tragic, works that carried more emotional gravitas oftentimes than the rest of the other movements combined. This movement I think really stands out from his early sonatas. Despite its considerable length and arched phrases, the chords are actually very tightly packed and condensed. This tension between harmonic structural terseness and lyric and emotional grandeur is what lies at the core of this piece. The sheer number of emotions this piece handles is quite incredible. You can really see Beethoven maturing into a formidable poet in this piece – a true emotional as well as technical master who was already changing the face of music.
This symphony is famous for many reasons, not just because it is an extraordinary work but because for the first time Beethoven acknowledged his role as a fearless, peerless revolutionary. Theories on the inspiration/subject matter of this piece are many, but everyone agrees that this is an enormously significant work. It doesn’t matter if this piece is about Napoleon, or about Beethoven himself, or about some ancient Greek hero – what matters is that it tells a story that is relevant to all, in music that forever revolutionized the way composers expressed themselves. It is a piece about self, about identity, about change, about life, about triumph over struggle, about emotional complexity. The second movement is crucial to this idea. Titled “funeral march”, it symbolizes the death (temporary death, I should say) of the main hero of the work. It is a movement fraught with tragedy, gravitas, and textured emotional layers. It’s lengthy, but worth a complete listen. This is typical middle-period Beethoven – a composer more comfortable in his own voice, but still struggling with his own identity as an artist and as a person. This piece, and this movement, is a testament to this struggle – the funeral march of a man who has died and reinvented himself, who has altered not only how he sees himself but how the world sees art.
I recently watched a masterclass given by a wonderful cellist recently, and he referenced this movement by playing its opening theme to showcase some vibrato technique he was talking about. Immediately the audience member sitting next to me sank down in his seat with a gasp – the sheer beauty and iconic lyricism of it was so immediately powerful. This movement is important not only because of its inherent artistic merit, but because it is the grand “eye of the hurricane” in the middle of a work so fraught with fire, power, and mythical legend. Somehow, it manages to hold its own ground through the strength of its beauty, elegance, and rock-solid grasp on its musical motifs. Through this symphony you can truly see how Beethoven has started to manipulate the musical themes he comes up with – tiny, seemingly insignificant phrases that he twists and turns and varies to create mighty, towering skyscrapers of sheer musical splendor. This is truly the work of a composer who has come into his own; confident in his powers and his emotional capabilities.
The first and third movements of this remarkable sonata (one of Beethoven’s best) are famous for their extreme emotional fury and unceasing drive all the way to the explosive finale. But the second movement is in stark contrast to both. Unlike the grand rage of the first movement, or the repetitive, rhythmically dense manic fury of the third, the second movement is almost hymn-like in its chordal tranquility and smooth flow. The movement is a series of variations on a theme that is as emotionally poignant as it is elegant. By now Beethoven has a become a true technical master, able to pull off any series of magical acrobatics using the simplest of themes. And in this case, the theme is no mere motif – it is a beautiful, almost religious statement of peaceful and timeless beauty. There are few pieces that can reassure and remind of everything beautiful and good the way this one can. It is absolutely transcendental.
The entire concerto is truly remarkable (from its magical key-change in the opening, to the quirky ornaments and flights of fancy in the last movement), but the middle movement is just stunning. The drama, contrasts, and sheer exquisite beauty of it elevate the work to transcendent magnificence. The entire second movement is a terse and desperately tragic dialogue between the orchestra and the piano. An oft-heard interpretation of the work is that it recounts the myth of Orpheus as he travels to the underworld to rescue his beloved from Hades. The orchestra can symbolize death, or his journey, or whatever dark forces you can imagine, and the piano symbolizes the sensitive and tragically resigned singer-poet of ancient Greek mythology. But whatever the interpretation, and whatever exact image Beethoven had in mind, this movement has the power to keep you completely enchanted throughout its entire duration and haunt you afterwards. Definitely worth a careful repeated listen.
Although I don’t think this movement has the technical complexity of the first movement, and is thus less often mentioned in most lists of his most memorable or significant works, it’s just too beautiful too leave out of this list. Besides, it’s the middle movement of the last piano concerto he ever wrote – he thought it worthy enough to be his final goodbye to this genre. There are few themes he wrote in this middle period of his life that compare to the haunting beauty of this one. The way the orchestra and piano intertwine, almost lovingly, in this work, is just magical. Expert writing combined with skilled and heartfelt poetry, at its finest.
This is a hefty movement, almost self-consciously attentive to its theme and motifs, but tragically beautiful nonetheless. It’s quite famous, so at first listen you’ll probably recognize it, but it’s worth listening to the end. It marks a sort of transition in the way Beethoven started to think of slow movements – from now on they become even longer, meatier, and significant than before. No longer do they simply provide a respite between the faster movements that bookend them – they are significant, important works in their own right. They’re not here to give you resting time in between fast movements, but rather to take your breath away even further. From now on the lines between movements are blurred as Beethoven experiments more and more with structure, breaking down almost anything recognizable about proper classical form and the distinctive characteristics setting movements apart from each-other.
Arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, piano sonata Beethoven wrote. An absolute demon to play (I don’t plan on going anywhere near this piece for at least until grad school), this piece just never relents in its manic search for artistic creativity, complexity, and power. It is technically challenging, artistically intelligent, and emotionally exhausting. Each movement rivals the next in its sheer genius and brilliance. While I could go on and on about the mastery in its massive fugue movement, or the dramatic perfection of the opening, or just about any section of this ridiculous piece that makes even the greatest pianists quake in fear, it is its middle movement that makes it essential to this list. The emotional complexity of this piece just floors me every time. It represents everything a younger Beethoven was trying to get at in his early sonatas (like No. 7), but would repeatedly fall just a bit short of due to his inexperience of lack of emotional maturity. This movement is essential late Beethoven – complicated, wavering between despair and absolutely heart-rending hope – all done in an almost improvisatory, constantly evolving manner. Nothing in this piece stays the same as it progresses. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t identify with the emotions described in this piece. Few other works, ever written by anyone, can so perfectly and fully describe the sadness yet faith that lies at the core of this unforgettable work. Please give it a listen from start to finish – it is absolutely worth it. Its transcendent beauty is matched only by its gut-wrenching, haunting humanity.
If any other piano sonata movement of Beethoven’s were to come close to the slow one of the Hammerklavier, it would be this one. Famous for its “jazzy” middle section that makes you want to snap your fingers, it nonetheless contains an absolutely exquisite opening theme that is rivaled only by the breathless build-up of emotion that characterizes the ending. Once again Beethoven displays his peerless mastery in using a slow movement to explore, deeply, all human emotions. These slow movements cease to be musical structures and become sheer declarations about humanity. The technical aspects of this piece and the way Beethoven develops his ideas are of course the work of a true master in his prime, but the emotional value and truth of it are what make it unforgettable. As with the others, this piece is absolutely worth a careful listen all the way to the end.
I had originally meant to make this a list of ten pieces – a nice round and comfortable number. But to do so would leave out this movement, which would be unforgivable. In fact, not even the Voyager Golden Record (the phonograph record containing a sample of Earth’s music and sounds sent to outer space in 1977) left it out of its collection. There is something so pure, so heartfelt, about this late work that makes it impossible to ignore. One of the things that make Beethoven’s music so unusual is that towards the end of his life, when his constant illness, loneliness, and almost complete deafness made his days an excruciating misery, he managed to write some of his most introspective, peaceful, and beautifully soul-searching music. This work isn’t despairing, it isn’t angry. It is magnificent. Musical elegance and eloquence at its finest. And there is something so true, so human about it that you almost forget it is music – it becomes a sheer emotional statement of universal and timeless truth. A telling anecdote about this works tells of how, when the Schuppanzig quartet played through this work for the now-deaf, surly and hardened composer, he started to cry. He would later tell his friends that just the memory of the performance would bring him to tears, later, again. It wasn’t the way they sounded, or the way they interpreted it (he couldn’t hear them anyway) – it was the mere sight of them being immersed in a piece that was so close to his heart, that seemed almost separated from his personal creation and instead became one with the world’s universal humanity.
And that is the reason for the unique magic of his works, particularly his slow works – they evolved into pieces that not only told the story of the composer’s personal life and emotions, but of things that were timeless and transcendent. Beethoven’s slow movements matured from the ponderings of a talented and eager younger composer to the musings of a man who felt deeply and was steeped in the all that was truly poignant in life. These aren’t just technically or musically significant works – these are works that are timeless because of their emotional understanding of the world.