Skip to main content

Beethoven's Three Compositional Periods: The Middle Period

I have been an online writer for over six years. I am a composer, musician, and a passionate advocate for the arts.

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804, toward the beginning of his middle period

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804, toward the beginning of his middle period

The Middle Period

Ludwig van Beethoven's middle period is defined by his increasing use of Romantic musical gestures and ideas. The use of these new ideas and his changing attitude towards composition led to Beethoven changing his composition style. The works that were written between 1803–1814 are now referred to as his middle period of writing music.

To recap, in Beethoven's early period, Beethoven was seeking a place, or a role, in Vienna's musical society as primarily a performer but also as a composer, after he permanently moved there in 1792. Being influenced strongly by the works of Mozart, Haydn, and other contemporaries, he defined a style of music that was his own and is now referred to as his early period.

As Beethoven's success continued, he began to notice that he was losing his hearing. It was this revelation and his currently successful state in Vienna that began to lead Beethoven down a more experimental route, ultimately changing his style of composition.

The Heiligenstadt Testament and Leading Into the Middle Period

The first record of Beethoven acknowledging his own deafness occurred in 1797 during the closing years of his early period. Beethoven began to seek treatment, but his hearing only worsened. By 1802, desperate for any sign of improvement, Beethoven took a doctor's advice and headed to a spa in a secluded town called Heiligenstadt. After spending six months trying to save his hearing and seeing no positive results, Beethoven began to despair.

Without being able to hear, Beethoven's career as a concert performer was doomed. It was during his stay in Heiligenstadt that he wrote a letter that was both a confession and a testament to his two brothers about his despair, which is now referred to as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In what is regarded as one of the most personal and powerful statements ever written by an artist, Beethoven talks about his deafness and his willingness to continue to live and not commit suicide due to the great misfortune of his hearing loss.

In the letter, Beethoven resolves to live his life being a composer, focusing on compositions to earn a living instead of performing. Beethoven's personal struggle against his hearing loss can be heard in most of the music he writes after writing this testament.

Struggling against great adversity is a common theme in Beethoven's music that is largely inspired by Beethoven's struggle to write the music that he is gradually hearing less and less of. This is the most significant factor in why Beethoven begins to change his writing style at this time.

The other factor was Beethoven's previous successes in composing music. Beethoven had been successful in publishing music during his early period and had made a decent amount of money selling music. It's important to note his early period in writing music was catered mostly to the public.

Building on his already established name (thanks to writing music largely catered to the public), Beethoven decided to take the risk and start writing more music for connoisseurs, which results in more ambitious and experimental musical ideas, but usually less income as the public is less likely to buy into the music.

Original score to Beethoven's 6th Symphony

Original score to Beethoven's 6th Symphony

Orchestral Music in the Middle Period

The orchestral music of Beethoven's middle period changed dramatically not only from his early period compositions but also from the compositions of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. A lot of the more experimental ideas that were present in Beethoven's early period piano sonatas were now being translated to his orchestral compositions. Beethoven's symphonies and concertos grew in length, and their sound would require additional instruments to be added to the orchestra, and the more demanding and challenging parts would require better musicians. The end result of Beethoven's experimentation with orchestral music changed the way future composers wrote for the orchestra.

Symphony 3 Eroica

The first major work of Beethoven's middle period is his 3rd Symphony, also called Eroica, which means heroic. This symphony is a landmark to symphonic music; the first movement alone is longer than many of the symphonies that were written by Haydn and Mozart. When it was completed, it was the longest symphony written at that time.

Beethoven originally intended to dedicate and name this symphony after Napoleon Bonaparte because Beethoven greatly admired the Republic that he thought Napoleon was trying to build. However, after Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven furiously scratched out Napoleon's name from the work and later renamed it Eroica.

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony largely plays on its title, covering the journey of a hero or the idea of heroism itself. This is most evident in the first movement of the symphony where a heroic sounding motive at the beginning starts strongly but ends in a state of weakness. The heroic motive is developed and varied throughout the first movement of the symphony going on a journey or and adventure with various ups and downs. It isn't until the end of the first movement that the motive is heard in a fashion that depicts heroism in all of its glory, the hero is complete.

Taking a concept like heroism and setting it to music gave the instrumental art-form that is the symphony a narrative. A narrative attached to a piece of music is Program Music, and this idea in music was an important part of the Romantic era that followed.

Symphony 5

Arguably the most recognizable piece of classical music ever written, Beethoven's 5th Symphony continues with the programmatic musical gestures, which like the 3rd Symphony are inspired by his continual worsening hearing loss. Beethoven said the following in a letter about his continued hearing loss:

"I shall seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely."

It's the idea of fate that inspires the famous opening four-note motive that starts this composition, which Beethoven was believed to have described as fate knocking at the door. This four-note rhythm makes its way into the other movements of the symphony, suggesting that you cannot escape your fate. However, the symphony carries an emotional arc that begins in the first movement with the intense foreboding aspect of fate and gradually builds to the climactic triumph over fate in the final movement.

A number of unique things happen in this symphony. It ends in a different key than it began, something that was not common at this time. The third movement moves straight into the fourth movement, which was also uncommon. It's also one of the earliest symphonies to use trombones, which Beethoven keeps in reserve until the final movement to make the triumph over fate even more powerful.

Symphony 6 Pastoral

Beethoven's 6th Symphony is another programmatic symphony. Another world-famous work, this symphony was used to depict a mythological setting in Disney's Fantasia. Although this symphony has nothing to do with mythology, in this work, Beethoven gives explicit names to each movement; all of them are related to nature. The titles to the five movements are translated to the following:

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country

2.Scene at the brook

3.Happy gathering of country folk


5. Shepherds' song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

The idea of a pastoral symphony is a kind of extension on Piano Sonata 15, which was also called the Pastoral. A lot of repetitive motives and long, drawn-out harmonies are used to convey the serene aspect of nature, much like the piano sonata before it.

Now that Beethoven has an orchestra to work with, he can use certain instruments to represent specific things in nature. For example, flutes, oboes, and clarinets in the second movement represent various bird calls when they are played. In the fourth movement, the timpani represents thunder, while the piccolo represents the howling wind of the storm.

Piano Concerto 5: The Emperor

This is Beethoven's final piano concerto and his longest coming in at over 40 minutes. Beethoven is finally able to surpass the piano concertos of Mozart (piano concertos were the pinnacle of Mozart's instrumental writing) with his fifth concerto.

Beethoven messes with the standard form of piano concertos with this work. A typical piano concerto begins with the orchestra stating the themes of the work, and the piano eventually does solo variations on those orchestral themes, usually with sparse orchestral accompaniment. At the beginning of this concerto, Beethoven starts with the cadenza.

Note: The cadenza in a concerto is usually a virtuosic passage played by the soloist towards the end of the piece, usually before the final statement of the theme.

Beethoven's use of the cadenza now functions as an introduction to this concerto, and this was something that was very unique for the concerto genre at this time. The concerto then launches into its famous exposition, and a movement as epic as the introduction begins to unfold. The first movement is about 20 minutes long (it feels a lot shorter than that), taking up half of the time of the entire concerto.

The second movement is a slow movement that rarely ever comes up to forte in its dynamics. It also transitions directly into the third movement without stopping by having the piano playing the theme of the third movement in slow motion at the end of the second movement.

In many ways, this concerto can be looked at as a two-movement work, with the first movement functioning as the first movement, while the second and third movements function as the second movement. The slower second movement in many ways feels like an extended introduction for the third movement, but it is also still independent of it.

Chamber Music in the Middle Period

String Quartets

During his middle period, Beethoven continued to focus on writing primarily for string quartet and piano trio. Five-string quartets emerge from this time period. His first set of three string quartets were written for the Russian ambassador to the Austrian court, Andreas Kyrillovitch Razumovsky, and his final two written from this period were written exclusively for connoisseurs and were "never to be performed in public," as Beethoven put it. The Razumovsky quartets are among Beethoven's most popular. Throughout this set of string quartets, Beethoven periodically incorporates Russian themes into the music for Razumovsky.

String Quartet #7 in F Major

This is the first quartet Beethoven had written since he had taken a break writing for string quartet during his early period. String Quartet #7 uses sonata-form for all four of its movements, which would have been uncommon since sonata-form was usually used for the first movements, with subsequent movements usually using different forms. Despite using sonata-form for every movement this string quartet still has a typical quartet feel. There is a scherzo-like movement, a slow adagio movement, and a climactic finale; they just all happen to be in sonata-form.

The first movement of this quartet gives the main theme to the cello throughout most of the piece, although the other strings periodically take up the melody. This movement climaxes at the coda where Beethoven has four string instruments playing the melody together in octaves. The effect of this is very powerful and shows Beethoven's growing ambitious use of form. Like the 3rd Symphony, the first movement of this string quartet was the longest written at the time.

The second movement resembles the feel of a scherzo but again is in sonata form. The third movement resembles a typical adagio, but like the scherzo is still in the same form. The final movement uses a Russian theme, played by the cello as the source of most of its material, while also paying tribute to the person to whom the quartets are dedicated.

Piano Trios

Beethoven composed the last of his piano trios during this time period. The two piano trios that make up Op. 70 were highly praised during their time, especially by E.T.A. Hoffman, and they were largely influential on the piano trios written by Schumann and Brahms. However, his final piano trio, The Archduke, Beethoven took writing for strings and piano to a new, heightened level.

Piano Trio #7 Archduke Trio

The Archduke Trio is named after Archduke Rudolph, one of Beethoven's patrons and pupils. At just over 40 minutes in length, this piano trio is one of Beethoven's most ambitious chamber works and certainly his longest piano trio.

In addition to its length, this work is also known for the cello part being a good deal more difficult than the violin part. That's not to say that the violin part isn't difficult, but the cello part being more difficult is a bit of an abnormality for its time. The first movement also features one of Beethoven's longest pizzicato (plucked strings) sections, which may have served as an inspiration to future Romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, who famously wrote the entire 3rd movement of his 4th Symphony using pizzicato in the strings the whole time.

The way the parts in the four movements of this composition move and work together bears a lot in common with the way an orchestra moves together. It is not uncommon to hear this composition described as a symphony for piano trio, due to the way the three instruments play together and because of its great length.

Piano Music in the Middle Period

Like in his early period, Beethoven continued to use the piano as an instrument to experiment with new ideas. Although he would never match the quantity of piano writing he had completed in his early period, there were still some great compositions on the piano to come out of Beethoven's middle period. The most famous of Beethoven's seven piano sonata's from his middle period are numbers 21 and 23, better known by their publishing names Waldstein and Appassionata.

Piano Sonata #21 Waldstein

This piano sonata was written shortly after the third symphony and is the first piano sonata of Beethoven's middle period. Beethoven worked on taking his heroic ideas from the 3rd Symphony and passing them on to a new medium, the piano. He also continued building off the previous ideas from his earlier piano sonatas.

The introduction to the first movement of this sonata is very bright and springy. The quick pulsating chords had not been done to this extent before in a piano sonata. The pulsating effect builds in intensity throughout the movement and is only contrasted by the alternating theme, which stops the rhythmic intensity and plays upon a beautiful theme made of chords.

Foreshadowing the second movement of the 5th Piano Concerto, Beethoven's second movement in the Waldstein Sonata also seems to function as an introduction for the final movement of this sonata, as well as its own separate movement within the whole work.

The finale begins with a beautiful theme that has a lot of similarities to the contrasting theme of the first movement of this sonata. This beautiful theme is contrasted by a second theme that consists of loud intense passages of music that is usually in octaves. In a lot of ways the last movement kind of acts as a contrast or opposite to the formal structure of the first movement.

The entire sonata was the most challenging piece of piano music Beethoven had written up to this point. The pianistic demands of this composition elevated the piano sonata genre to a place it had never been before. Its difficulty matched the virtuosity of the hardest concertos for the piano at that time.

Piano Sonata #23 Appassionata

The name Appassionata was never given to this sonata by Beethoven, rather it started to become associated with this composition in 1838, nearly eleven years after Beethoven had died. Like the Waldstein Sonata, Beethoven worked to improve the emotional scope of writing music for the piano.

The first movement for this piano sonata features a lot of unison arpeggios in both hands, with each musical phrase not properly resolving. Beethoven does this to create a lot of tension within the movement. He also modulates the unison arpeggio figures frequently, further skewing the listener's sense of the tonic (the final resolution tone) in the music.

These unison arpeggios are contrasted by the second theme which is a lyrical legato passage that transitions into a fast furious section before the first movement heads to the development. Beethoven doesn't really begin to drill the listeners with the tonic until the coda of the first movement, which is the most furious and intense part of the whole movement. The emotional tension that is present by the time you get to this point in the first movement of this sonata is staggering.

The second movement works through a theme and four variations. The simplicity of this theme and the fact that most of the phrases resolve on the tonic makes this movement's harmonic scheme and thematic scheme a very sharp contrast from the first movement. In short, it gives the listeners a chance to recover from the first movement before launching into the final movement.

The final movement echoes the emotional intensity of the first movement. Alternating between minor and major keys, this sonata has an ending that ends tragically, one of the few works by Beethoven to have such an ending. The highly emotional nature of this work has led to a lot of speculation as to what this composition is about. Beethoven left no record of a narrative for it, and today no single standing theory stands above the rest.

Fidelio and Opera in the Middle Period

Beethoven's only opera was written during his middle period, and it was called Fidelio. Opera at this time was considered the most prestigious form of music, and Beethoven, having now established himself as Vienna's most prestigious composer, decided to write an opera to further his reputation.

For his libretto (opera text), Beethoven chose the story of Leonore. Originally Beethoven began working on this opera at the beginning of his middle period, calling it Leonore after the original text. He debuted this opera in 1805, and it was a commercial failure. So Beethoven made revisions and tried to debut again next year, and again the opera was a commercial failure. It wasn't until 1814 that Beethoven was able to successfully launch this opera, and by the time he did, many revisions had been done to the original score, including changing the title to Fidelio.

Fidelio is an opera in two acts. The basic premise of the story is Leonore sneaks into prison dressed as a prison guard named Fidelio. Her goal is to free her husband from the prison and the corrupt warden, who is going to execute him because he is a political prisoner. The story was very popular in its time, and today Fidelio is still performed on a regular basis.

The difficulties Beethoven had in writing opera kept him away from ever completing a second one. Instead, Beethoven continued to focus on instrumental music, despite opera's prestigious reputation.

The End of Beethoven's Middle Period

As Beethoven continued to further the art of music composition, his output began to slow around 1814. A myriad of factors was likely the cause of this, but this slowing of his composition rate led to the end of Beethoven's middle period. A few years later, when Beethoven began to focus on creating new compositions, his style had altered into what is now referred to as his late period.

The factors that slowed Beethoven down included a year-long sickness in which he was bedridden most of the time. In 1815 Beethoven's brother Carl died, and a lengthy custody dispute over his brother's son erupted between Beethoven and Carl's wife.

The Napoleonic Wars were also coming to a close, and the former monarchies were now being replaced all over Europe. As these monarchies regained their power, they sought to keep it, and that meant placing strict regulations on the type of art that was permissible for public viewing. Finally, Beethoven's deafness had grown increasingly worse.

By the end of his middle period, Beethoven had retired as a performer due to the fact that he could barely hear the music he was playing. Despite his deafness, he would still conduct music periodically or he would stand off to the side of the conductor and conduct with him. By 1818, he had begun to rely on conversation books to hold conversations with people, although, by this time, he had begun composing music that would be associated with his late period.

  • String Quartet #7
  • Piano Trio #5 "Ghost"
  • Piano Trio #6
  • Piano Trio #7 Archduke
  • Violin Sonata #9 Kreutzer
  • Piano Sonata #21 Waldstein
  • Piano Sonata #23 Appassionata
  • Piano Sonata #26 Les Adieux
  • Symphony #3 Eroica
  • Symphony #4
  • Symphony #5
  • Symphony #6 Pastoral
  • Symphony #7
  • Symphony #8
  • Piano Concerto #5 The Emperor
  • Violin Concerto
  • Fidelio

Further Reading

Share Your Thoughts On Beethoven's Middle Period

Summer on October 11, 2016:

What wonderful music! I wish younger generations saw the beauty of Beethoven

jamila sahar on November 18, 2012:

Great Hub! I look forward to reading more from you !

Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on November 15, 2012:

You're right about Appassionata and Beethoven's 5th, the fate motif is all over that first movement I just blanked on making the connection. Thanks for sharing and commenting.

jamila sahar on November 15, 2012:

Wow! Wish I had this article in grad school! Very comprehensive analysis of Beethoven's second stylistic period. One important note regarding his Fifth Symphony and the Fate Motif, is that is also in the 'Apassionata' Sonata. I personally worked on the 'Tempest' Sonata which was towards the beginning of this period, and it is quite a challenging piece to analyze and play, particularly the first movement. Thank you for sharing this knowledge with the world and your appreciation of the arts !

Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on October 11, 2012:

Hello Alex, Thanks for commenting. I agree I wish more people did listen to classical music, there is a lot that can be taken and appreciated from it.

AlexDrinkH2O from Southern New England, USA on October 11, 2012:

I wish I could get some younger people today who listen primarily to pop junk to get acquainted with Beethoven and the rest of the masters. What music! Thanks for a great article. Thumbs up, tweeted, and shared.

Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on October 11, 2012:

Hello Audrey, thanks for stopping by and sharing. Glad you liked it.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 11, 2012:

Ah, I get to be first! What a great article! Sharing this with all my music friends!