We explore Beethoven’s revolutionary nine symphonies. But not every piece he wrote is that well known today. So here’s our guide to six of the great German composer’s overlooked works.
Wellington’s Victory/The Battle Symphony, Op. 91
This 15-minute orchestral piece was composed in 1813 to celebrate the defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, king of Spain and brother of Napoleon, by British troops led by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria.
Beethoven’s music dramatises the battle, splitting the orchestra into two and incorporating live cannon and musket fire for added excitement. Well-known national tunes represent the two sides with God Save the King and Rule Britannia for the British and Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre for the French.
Today the piece is often seen as a novelty, but at the time of his death it was publically considered one of his best works.
12 German Dances, WoO 8
Beethoven wrote these 12 German Dances in 1795, at the age of just 25, for the Redoutensaal, a salon frequented by the Viennese upper classes. This is Beethoven on a small scale, displaying concise craftsmanship – not one of the dances breaks the two-minute mark.
Though Beethoven originally orchestrated the dances, they became popular enough for him to make a piano arrangement to be played at home.
British folk song arrangements
Beethoven’s 179 settings of folk songs earned him a substantial amount of money. He was commissioned by publisher and folk-song collector George Thomson, who paid the composer four ducats per song – twice as much as Haydn initially received. Thomson had transcribed many of the melodies on his travels around Great Britain and he also commissioned great British poets like Robert Burns and Walter Scott to write new texts for existing folk songs.
A mixture of simple solo, duet, and trio arrangements, the songs were suitable for social use in the houses and salons of the Viennese middle-class. The songs range from the jolly (Put round the bright wine) to melancholy (On the Massacre of Glencoe). There is even a lively arrangement of Auld Lang Syne (below).
Cantata On the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87
When news of the Emperor’s death reached Bonn, the University began preparations for a memorial ceremony that would take place just a month later. Theology student Severin Anton Averdonk wrote a text, and an open invitation was extended to composers in Bonn to set it to music.
19-year-old Beethoven leapt at the chance to prove his talent as a composer. Established composers were reluctant to attempt the work on such a tight deadline, so Beethoven won the job. However, for unknown reasons, the initial performance was cancelled and it was never performed in his lifetime.
Three Equale for Four Trombones, WoO 30
Beethoven wrote this set of ‘equale’ works for All Soul’s Day in Linz Cathedral, 1812. They were later performed at his own funeral in an arrangement for male voice choir, with the words of the Miserere added by Ignaz von Seyfried.
‘Equale’ or ‘Aequale’ is a Latin musical term that means ‘for equal parts,’ or put simply, for the same instrument. Beethoven writes for his four trombones in long, homophonic phrases, creating a rich sombre tone throughout the set.
Beethoven wrote a great number of Italian songs while studying composition with Antonio Salieri, often as exercises. Very few of his early works have survived, but those he composed or revisited in later life are far better preserved.
The songs have a very different mood from Beethoven’s famous song-cycle An die ferne geliebte. Some of the songs, the brief, lyrical Ecco quel fiero istante (WoO 124) for example, could almost be by Mozart.
In questa tomba oscura (WoO 133) is entirely different. Here we can see more dramatic elements and the accompaniment contributes to the development of the song as it transitions from calm, slow chords to thunderous quaver-movement and back again.