In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin, Baroque music and sopranos.
Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the stormy, tender music of Beethoven, who was born 250 years ago this month. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.
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Joshua Barone, Times editor
Forget that famous portrait of Beethoven, scowling with arched eyebrows and Medusa hair. For all its anguish, his music teems with hope. The seemingly inescapable low point of the Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat (Op. 110), a resigned arioso, gives way to a wondrous fugue. Later, that arioso’s darkness returns — a reminder, even a relapse — but is fought off by majestic chords. Then the fugue resounds anew, marked in the score as “gradually coming back to life.” The melody soars ever higher, riding a crest of euphoric runs. Back to life, indeed.
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David Allen, Times writer
Beethoven is at his best when he sweeps you away with him, whether into the heavens or the darkest depths. Nowhere is that polarity more brutally effective than in the “Coriolan” Overture. In the hands of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the most visionary of Beethoven conductors, tearing into his Berlin Philharmonic as the war turned on Germany in June 1943, it’s nine minutes of furious, eruptive, quite terrifying aggression — Beethoven, rampant.
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Marin Alsop, conductor
Especially in our current climate of upheaval and uncertainty, I choose the Cavatina from the late Op. 130 String Quartet. For me, this movement is a truly spiritual experience, a meditation on our existence, a life-affirming reassurance. It begins with an invitation, a welcome, and then we join the musical prayer. But it is not without unease, as Beethoven modulates to an unexpected key and the first violin hesitatingly and tentatively questions. But the composer soothes us with a reprise of the opening prayer, and we find solace in the hope that the good and beauty in humanity will ultimately prevail.
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Armando Iannucci, writer and director
Beethoven was one of music’s most passionate and disruptive forces. He simultaneously glorified the traditional forms — symphony, sonata, quartet — and pushed them to the breaking point. One of his most amazing moments comes in the central movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto. The piano line sounds like it’s harking back to Mozart, but restless strings grumble away at something more unsettled. Then the solo piano embarks on a sudden flurry of insistent strangeness, a sound unmistakably atonal in a brief 20-second burst. It’s a flash of Beethoven at his most experimental and daring.
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Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Times writer
You could teach a fiction-writing workshop with this movement from the most heroic of the sonatas Beethoven wrote for violin and piano. Set a strong mood from the start (here, dark and brooding). Pace things well (breathless, with one well-placed cryptic pause). Plot your narrative with feints and twists to keep your audience guessing all the way to the end. Create characters that drive the action, like the hunted, haunted curmudgeon of Beethoven’s first theme, and the chirpy martial second theme that skips in out of nowhere and forces a page-turner of a development. Oh, and keep it brief.
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Weston Sprott, trombonist and administrator
Even if you think you don’t know the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you probably do. But you might not be as familiar with the incredible transition into the work’s final movement. This is classical music’s version of moving from Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After 20 minutes of struggle between darkness and light, unabashed joy emerges. I’m hopeful this musical moment is a microcosm of where we are as a people: in the midst of an epic struggle, yet on the cusp of surfacing better than ever and with sunshine in our pockets.
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Steve Reich, composer
I first heard the A minor String Quartet (Op. 132) when I was about 17. Immediately, the slow movement quietly, intensely, completely took over my attention. Here was something extraordinary. Titled “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode,” it was written after Beethoven recovered from a serious intestinal illness, just two years before his death. The music captures this, though it needs no program note for its emotional force to be clear. The recording here, by the revered Busch Quartet, feels totally in touch with the spirit of this music, scratches and all.
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Patricia Morrisroe, writer
Most people know the “Moonlight” Sonata’s moody first movement, but it’s the third that demonstrates how Beethoven became Beethoven. Struggling with his hearing loss, he turns his anger and frustration into a ferocious, heart-stopping declaration of survival. With lightning-quick arpeggios and crashing chords, he teeters on the edge of madness but never topples into the abyss. He would later write that his work saved him from committing suicide. This movement thrills me every time I hear it.
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George Lewis, composer
I was introduced to Beethoven’s Septet by the International Contemporary Ensemble. This convivial Biedermeier-era work, so influential on Schubert’s 1824 Octet, is one of his most popular pieces, but is so distant in affect from the image of Beethovenian fist-shaking that (as the story goes) when the composer was asked to create a new work in this more agreeable style, he growled, “Mozart wrote that.”
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Anthony Tommasini, Times chief classical music critic
The solo part of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto ripples with showy passagework that its composer made the most of when he was introducing himself to Viennese audiences. Some consider this early piece vibrant and effective, but not yet the “real” Beethoven. Don’t believe it. Take the Rondo finale. Beneath all the romping jollity, a wild-eyed composer intent on bucking Classical niceties comes through, right from the start of the feisty theme. Passages of seemingly playful dialogue between the soloist and orchestra have almost combative intensity. A contrasting section in minor key is spiked with syncopated accented notes in the piano that are almost maniacal.
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Paul Lewis, pianist
Beethoven is well known for music that conveys a sense of struggle, but there are many more ingredients in his complex musical personality. The first movement of his Op. 78 Piano Sonata is pure radiance and profound lyrical beauty; this was one of the sonatas of which Beethoven declared he was most fond. It couldn’t be further in character from the hell-storming distress of the sonata that preceded it, the much better known “Appassionata.” Opus 78 stands in complete contrast to that, and is one of the most modest, heartfelt, reflective works from a composer more often recognized for his intractable, uncompromising character.
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The Op. 131 String Quartet is one of my favorite works because it highlights Beethoven’s individuality and willingness to challenge musical precedents. Anyone with the notion that classical music is stuffy or tame needs to listen to this quartet, specifically the last movement. It opens with a ferocity that grows more intense as the music develops. This movement continues with unpredictable drama at each turn. As someone who is in both the classical and popular music spaces, I imagine this movement being sampled and turned into a hip-hop or house track. Beethoven was truly ahead of his time.
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Terrance McKnight, WQXR host
The second movement of the Piano Sonata No. 32 is a work of spiritual healing. The tune seems familiar, and you might find yourself humming along, until you realize that you don’t actually know it. At that point, Beethoven leans back and testifies, humbly recounting the physical ailments, heartache and suicidal urges that marked his 51 years. Then comes his spiritual transformation, and that little tune dances like nobody’s watching, transcending the troubles of this world, finding its rightful place among the stars.
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Seth Colter Walls, Times writer
The second movement of the Seventh Symphony showed signs of staying power early in its public life: At the premiere, audience members clamored for an encore. The movement has continued to inspire — not least filmmakers as different as Jean-Luc Godard (in “Goodbye to Language”) and Sion Sono (“Love Exposure”). No matter how many times motifs from this Allegretto reappear, even within the same movie, the music’s gloomy refinement prevents anything like diminishing returns.
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Moisés Kaufman, playwright
This is Beethoven’s most thrilling and sophisticated fugue. He’s old and deaf when he writes it, and yet he sets out to create the most ambitious composition he’s ever attempted in fugue form. The result is truly a triumph of the spirit. The harmonies are extraordinary, as is the complexity of the counterpoint. I just love the image of an old artist trying to surpass all his previous achievements. And the ending is sublime; it sounds like a boxer after a long fight. It’s an exhalation more than an ending.
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Zachary Woolfe, Times classical music editor
In Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” a woman disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the prison where her husband is being held on trumped-up political charges. Through unimaginable courage and luck, she succeeds in freeing him, and the crowd joins the couple’s triumph in a stirring celebration of marriage. The text of the immortal “Ode to Joy,” another choral outpouring, also refers to conjugal bonds, but sticks to cosmic generalities. Here in “Fidelio,” though, recognizable characters enact the point: Individual happiness and principles of justice, personal and civic responsibility, feed one another, dual wellsprings of social cohesion.