Ludwig van Beethoven

Ten Beethoven Innovations

Next: Q&A

Addition of human voice to the symphony: prior to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the symphony was a purely orchestral genre: we have no symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, or other composers that include chorus and/or soloists. With Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824), a new era was opened. After Beethoven, while relatively uncommon, the addition of choral and solo vocal forces to the symphonic genre would become part and parcel of the general history of the symphony. Composers such as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Vaughan-Williams, and others would integrate the vocal element into their symphonies. 

Watch this fabulous video of the Finale from Beethoven's 9th Symphony!

The free-standing concert Overture: the “overture” prior to Beethoven was always connected to an opera, being the curtain-raiser before the action of the opera commenced onstage. Although opera overtures could be performed as separate items (and often were), they were conceived as part of the larger operatic work. With Beethoven, we see for the first time a new type of piece, the concert overture, that is NOT part of ANY opera, but is rather a free-standing piece of music: essentially a new form in music history. His overtures, such as Coriolan, King Stephen, Consecration of the House, Namensfeier, and others were the starting point for the evolution of the concert overture in the 19th century. Composers from Mendelssohn all the way to Shostakovich and beyond wrote concert overtures. It all started with Beethoven! The CD shown at left would not have been possible (for many reasons!) prior to the advent of Beethoven. Click on the PLAY button to hear a wonderful and powerful rendition of the Coriolan Overture, conducted by the great Carlos Kleiber-one of my FAVORITE conductors!

The Introduction of the SCHERZO movement: prior to Beethoven, when composers were writing multi-movement works such as symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas (to name only a few), they invariably turned to the MENUET-TRIO for the typical third movement.  This dance form, which derives from Baroque suites, is in a leisurely tempo and, relatively speaking, backward-looking. Beethoven changed all of this with the introduction of the Scherzo movement, a movement in triple time (as is the Menuet) that moves at a much faster clip than the staid Menuet. From this time onward, though we may still find the occasional Menuet (even in Beethoven), they hearken back to an earlier epoch, whereas the Scherzo is a conscious look forward into new territory.

"Scherzo in Italian means "joke"

Compare and Contrast: the stately Menuet from Mozart's final symphony (#41) above, and the rollicking Scherzo from Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 below.

Expansion of the Orchestra: during the high Classic period, the "standard" orchestra consisted of the following:

1 or 2 flutes

2 oboes

2 bassoons

2 horns

2 trumpets (not always)



Compare that with the orchestra used by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony of 1824:

2 flutes


2 oboes

2 clarinets

2 bassoons


4 horns

2 trumpets

3 trombones


bass drum




That is quite and expansion! It all began with the Symphony no. 3 (Eroica) from 1803, when Beethoven expanded his horn section from 2 to 3 players, and the orchestra gradually evolved from there to the very large forces required for the 9th Symphony. Horn section of 4, Contrabassoon, piccolo, percussion, trombones: these now-common additions all started with Beethoven!

A logical question might be: "where does it all end, and how large does the symphony orchestra wind up being in the modern era?" Although there is no such thing as a "typical" size for a modern orchestra, it is difficult to get much larger than Mahler in his Symphony of a Thousand (no. 8), composed in 1906. Enjoy the video clip at right, which features the final moments of this symphony. At the premiere performance in 1910 there were 171 instrumentalists and a chorus of 858 (including soloists). WOW!

As you view the short video above that features Mozart's famous Symphony no. 29, pay careful attention to the size of the orchestra. How many winds and brass are there? How large is the string section?

Beethoven introduced the trombone section in his Symphony no. 5: you won't find trombones in any of the 41 symphonies of Mozart or 104 symphonies of Haydn! Have a look and listen!

Mahler Symphony no. 8: it doesn't get bigger than this!

Invention of the SONG CYCLE:  while songs certainly existed long before Beethoven, the arrival of the integrated song cycle, aset of songs that are connected to each other in some way, including he use of motivic correlations, seamless transitions from one song to the next, and cyclic treatment only arrived with the famous An die ferne Geliebte song cycle by Beethoven, composed in 1816 as an important transitional work leading into the final period of his life.  ALL subsequent song cycles, whether by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Mahler, and others, owe their existence to this landmark work of startling orignality. Nothing like this had been heard before this time!

Here is the incredibly beautiful and moving beginning of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte song cycle, sung by Dieskau. Note how each song goes directly into the next one without pause.

Motivic and thematic condensation and saturation: this sounds more complicated than it really is....Basically, one could say that when it came to writing "melodies", Beethoven, especially in the early and middle periods, made a conscious decision to shorten and intensify his melodic writing. Often his motives and melodies are extremely short and concise: think for example of the beginning of the famous Symphony no. 5: four notes, or, better to say, ONE rhythmic device: short-short-short-LONG (which occurs in all four movements as a unifying device).  Relative to much Beethoven, Mozart melodies are considerably longer and more drawn out, as a very general statement.  Saturation refers to the fact that Beethoven relentlessly repeated his motives, subtly transforming them in the process, so that a movement of one of his works has many, many (often hundreds) iterations of motivic material.

Mozart Symphony no. 40: expansive with a long melodic line...have a listen!

Beethoven Symphony no. 5: compact and incisive: try counting how many times the initial motive is heard throughout the movement: GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!!!

Programmatic music: while Beethoven is certainly not the first composer to write programmatic music (music that tells some sort of extra-musical story or has an extra-musical idea or concept), he certainly was a far-reaching pioneer in this realm, and in this sense he is the first true Romantic, since much of the Romantic period in music in the 19th century deals with pictorial and extra-musical associations, i.e. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Liszt’s Dante Symphony, Strauss’s Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Death and Transfiguration, and thousands more. Beginning with the Eroica Symphony (no. 3), and moving through the Pastoral Symphony (no. 6) toward the Choral Symphony (no. 9), as well as in many piano sonatas and other works, Beethoven pressed forward with the concept of programmatic music. Hugely important historically!

The first movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony has the following title: Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside. Such descriptive titles are an important aspect of much programatic music. Here is a lovely performance conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

Rhythmic Displacement: rhythm was always foremost in Beethoven’s mind as a hugely important and creative aspect of his music. He truly revolutionized the use of rhythm by moving away from square and run-of-the-mill rhythms, and especially by offsetting his rhythms and pulse from the prevailing meter of the movement. Composers after Beethoven (Brahms is one of the best examples) would continue these rhythmic innovations to an even farther degree, so much so that one can’t “feel” the “correct” meter very easily at all. Two famous examples offered here will suffice to illustrate very clearly how Beethoven's use of rhythmic displacement permeates his compositional thinking. As you listen to the String Quartet op. 18 No. 6, try to figure out where the "beat" is (this is one of the most difficult movements of the entire chamber music repertoire). In the Eroica Symphony excerpt, notice how how Beethoven offsets the 3/4 meter and also gives the listener the feeling that the music is in TWO rather than in THREE. Revolutionary for the times!

Beethoven String Quartet Op. 18 No. 6

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (originally intended to be dedicated to Napoleon). Try counting 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 and see how it works out:)

Shift of weight to the Finale: prior to Beethoven, the greatest “weight” of multi- movement works was to be found in the first movements, and the finales were often dance-inspired movements (in line with the original concept of the Italian sinfonia that emerged in the 1720s) and/or light-hearted rondos. With Beethoven, this changed: now the weight is often in the final movement, which serves as an apotheosis. We can see this at work in many, many Beethoven works across all genres. It is first clearly recognized in the “Eroica” Symphony (no. 3) of 1803, and is found in the 5th Symphony, the 7th, 8th, and 9th Symphonies, as well as numerous string quartets and piano sonatas.

Here is the complete Finale to Beethoven Symphony no. 5: an apotheosis movement of the highest order. Gone are the light-hearted Rondo finale movements, and everything drives toward to final culmination of the 37-minute long symphony.

The “Cyclic” Symphony: again, another Beethoven innovation, absolutely. The cyclic symphony refers to the fact that Beethoven cycles through, or brings back material from earlier movements, at the end of a symphony. This unifies the entire work and gives the listener a sense of return. This had not been done before Beethoven. The cyclic symphony would become an important element in the toolbox of many 19th century Romantic composers as well as 20th century composers. The best example of this (not limited to symphonic music, too..) is the last movement of the 9th Symphony, where Beethoven brings back themes from the previous three movements. I will close this section with an example from Tchaikovsky: his famous Symphony no. 4. Borrowing from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky brings back the melody from the opening measures of the first movement at the very end of the final movement, 41 minutes later. This cyclic treatment of the main theme helps to round out and unify the entire work. Prior to Beethoven, this technique had never been employed in terms of formal structure in symphonic music. GO BEETHOVEN!

Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 (opening measures)

Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 (last four minutes of final movement)