By the 19th cent., Beethoven's work could already be divided into three fairly distinct periods. The works of the first period include the First (1800) and Second (1802) Symphonies; the first three piano concertos (1795–1800); the first group of string quartets (1800); and a number of piano sonatas, among them the Pathétique (1798) and the Moonlight Sonata (1801). Although the compositions of the first period have Beethoven's unmistakable breadth and vitality, they are dominated by the tradition of Haydn and Mozart.
Beginning about 1802, Beethoven's work took on new dimensions. The premiere in 1805 of the massive Third Symphony, known as the Eroica (composed 1803–4), was a landmark in cultural history. It signaled a definitive break with the past and the birth of a new era. The length, structure, harmonies, and orchestration of the Eroica all broke the formal conventions of classical music; unprecedented too was its intention—to celebrate human freedom and nobility. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, who at first symbolized to Beethoven the spirit of the French Revolution and the liberation of mankind; however, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, the disillusioned composer renamed his work the "Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man."
The works of Beethoven's middle period, his most productive, include the Piano Concertos No. 4 (1806) and No. 5 (Emperor Concerto, 1809); the Razumovsky Quartets (1806); his Ninth Sonata for violin, the Kreutzer Sonata (1803), and his one Violin Concerto (1806); the Fourth through Eighth Symphonies (1806–12); a number of piano sonatas, among them the Waldstein and the Appassionata (both 1804). His sole opera, Fidelio, was produced in its first version in 1805 and in its final form in 1814. Beethoven wrote four overtures for the opera, three of them known as the Leonore Overture. He also composed overtures to Collin's Coriolan (1807) and to Goethe's Egmont (1810). From about 1813 to 1820 there was some slackening in Beethoven's productivity, probably due in part to difficulties concerning his nephew.
Beethoven's final period dates from about 1816 and is characterized by works of greater depth and complexity. They include the demanding, nearly symphonic Hammerklavier sonata (1818) and the other late piano sonatas; the monumental Ninth Symphony (1817–23) with its choral finale based on Schiller's Ode to Joy; and the Missa Solemnis (1818–23). The last five string quartets and the Grosse Fuge (also for quartet), composed in his last years, are considered by many music lovers to be Beethoven's supreme creations, and by some the most sublime music ever composed.
An extraordinarily prolific composer, Beethoven produced, in addition to the works mentioned, sonatas for violin and piano and for cello and piano; string and piano trios; music for wind instruments; miscellaneous piano works, including the popular bagatelle Für Elise (1810); over 200 songs; a number of shorter orchestral works; and several choral pieces.
Beethoven's influence on subsequent composers has been immeasurable. Aside from his architectonic innovations and expansion of the classical sonata and symphony, he brought to music a new depth and intensity of emotion that was emulated by later romantic composers but probably never surpassed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.