Of all the classical composers, the name of Beethoven ranks alongside Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Bach as probably the best known. Some, of course, would place him at the head of that list.
He is undoubtedly one of the most admired classical music composers. His work remains some of the most played today in concert halls all over the world. Especially his piano works. But what instruments did Beethoven play other than the piano? Stick around, and you’ll find out.
From The Classical To The Romantic
His composing life crossed over the transition from the Classical to the Romantic Periods. And across this time frame, you can divide his work into three periods.
The Early Period
This was a time when you could say he was still learning his craft. Nevertheless, he produced plenty of notable works. This period ended around 1802 and was heavily influenced by his appreciation of the work of both Haydn and Mozart.
From this early stage in his career came the wonderful Moonlight Sonata. At the time, it was known as Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor. The name ‘Moonlight’ was applied to it in the 1830s.
The Middle Period
This is the time when he began to develop his style. His works took on a more dramatic turn, and this time in his life was sometimes known as his “heroic” period. It produced some beautiful pieces, such as the “Fur Elise,” written in 1810. This is still one of the most played piano pieces.
But, his middle period also included the very dramatic 5th Symphony, which he started in 1804 and finished in 1808. It was during this period that he noticed he was beginning to lose his hearing. His middle period is considered to have lasted from 1802 to 1812.
The Late Period
The late period lasted from 1812 to about 1827 and was a period when he was plagued by his increasing deafness. This only seemed to spur him on and encouraged him to extend his ambitions and form of expression musically.
It was in this period when Beethoven wrote his 9th Symphony between 1822 and 1824. And was first performed in Vienna in 1824, by which time his hearing had gone completely.
It is regarded by musicologists and critics as one of the greatest pieces in the history of music and Beethoven’s finest work.
The Piano And More
Ludwig Van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. And it was at a very early age that his father, Johann, decided his son was to become a composer and musician. The father proved to be a hard taskmaster as a teacher.
Practice hours were long and arduous. His father was a local orchestral musician and singer of some repute. He was given the title of Master of Music in Bonn. Possibly that is why he felt he had to improve his own standing through his son.
A Virtuoso Pianist
It is through his virtuoso piano playing that we think of Beethoven. Most of his works were, of course, composed on and played by the piano. But, there was another side to him, and he was more than competent on other instruments. Let’s consider Beethoven’s other musical attributes.
Most are aware of his piano prowess, but what instruments did Beethoven play before learning the piano? While Beethoven was still a young boy and taking his first tentative musical steps, the piano was still a relatively new instrument.
The piano was ‘invented’ for want of a better word by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in Padua, Italy. He was an expert harpsichord maker, and the first pianos as we know them came from his workshop.
Of the composers we are very familiar with, Johann Sebastien Bach would have been the first to play it. Mozart, in later times, played one as well. Some of the Royal Courts may also have had them. In other words, you had to be either rich or famous, or preferably both, to have one.
Did Young Ludwig Play The Harpsichord?
It is quite likely his first practice sessions were on the harpsichord. It resembles a piano, of course, and is played the same way. There were two differences, though.
Firstly, the overall sound, as you are no doubt aware, is far different even from those early rudimentary pianos. This probably would not have helped Beethoven’s early compositions. But, there was a bigger difference in the way harpsichord and piano were played.
A Lack Of Dynamics
The harpsichord used a very basic system that plucked the strings when you pressed the keys, causing vibrations that gave you sound. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it limits the speed at which you can play the notes compared with a piano.
But secondly, no matter how hard you strike the key, the volume of the note stays the same. Ultimately that would be no good for Beethoven, who, even as a young student, liked his dynamics.
It is, therefore, that from a young age, Beethoven began learning his music on the harpsichord.
Violin and Viola
To some, it seems odd that Beethoven played the Violin and the Viola. On the other hand, he composed some of the best Violin concertos and Sonatas in history.
Therefore, he must have been reasonably adept as a minimum requirement. But, it must be said that he didn’t put as much into either instrument as he did with the piano.
A Serious Teacher
He was taught for a time by Haydn, amongst other notable Violin players. He did this not because he wanted to be known as a famed violinist.
His purpose was so that he could gain rudimentary knowledge and have an appreciation of what it takes to play it well. Possibly, he already had in mind some of the compositional styles he might work on in the future.
To learn the instrument, they play the same way. In other words, if you can play the Violin, you will also be able to play the Viola. So, while it looks like Beethoven could play two instruments, you could say it was just one.
Violin And All That Jazz
Jazz, as we know it, was an unknown genre. But much of today’s jazz is improvisation, and Beethoven loved to improvise on the violin.
He learned to read but found better ways to express himself. I am not sure his father was particularly impressed.
On The Viola?
Very little is known about his skills on the Violin’s sister instrument. But, we do know that he was good enough to be invited to play in the Bonn Theatrical Orchestra as a permanent member. No slouch then. But we probably already knew that.
Beethoven was taught to play the organ by his music teacher Gottlob Neefe. Neefe himself was an important musician at court and was actually the court organist. He also ran his own Operatic group.
Neefe was often called away to play concerts, and Beethoven was encouraged to cover for him. That gave Beethoven his first taste of public performance.
Piano vs Organ
They may seem the same, but there are fundamental differences. And there is a different skill set for each instrument. The piano is considered a percussion instrument. The organ is woodwind. They produce very different sounds when they are played.
To achieve longevity of notes and sustain on an organ, you simply hold the key down. On a piano, to achieve sustain, the keys must be played repetitively on a particular note or notes.
An organ can vary itself in sound, which may help the player to achieve a certain sound if the music demands it. The piano will only play the sound it was built to make.
Technical Playing Differences
It is here that the real differences occur. They are not only played differently, but the keyboard is used differently. In Beethoven’s day, there may have been two or even three separate keyboards racked in front of you. The piano or harpsichord had only one.
There were different techniques in playing which had to be mastered for both instruments. Organ players can hold chords to achieve a sound, piano players cannot. And on the piano, the finger patterns and chords are much more complex.
Some might think playing the organ and piano are the same. Of course, the keyboard is musically the same, though sometimes with fewer octaves on the organ. But, they are very different instruments that require different techniques.
Of course, the instrument Beethoven is renowned for playing. He started being taught from the age of five by his father. As we have already mentioned, he was a hard taskmaster, to say the least.
Family acquaintances remarked that the young Ludwig was terrified of his father. Especially the punishments he handed out for any mistakes made.
Pursuing A Dream
As so often happens, and in some cases even more so today, parents live their dreams through their children. Bullying parents who think that is the way to success. And we see it in many walks of life.
In education, where anything less than getting exceptional grades is unacceptable. In sports, like tennis, where it is known for fathers to hit daughters when things go wrong. Where some parents are banned from attending their children’s matches.
Certainly, these same obsessions were rife in Beethoven’s day. His father wanted him to be another Mozart, another child prodigy. In Beethoven’s early recitals, his father lied about his age to make him seem younger than he was to gain attention and favor.
He Was To Be No ‘Wonderkid’
Beethoven went through all this and somehow came out the other side, still loving the piano. He showed real promise as a musician and a composer, as testified by Gottlob Neefe, his music teacher, and no lesser luminary than Franz Joseph Haydn.
Beethoven, though, was what is considered a late developer musically. Neither of these great teachers, musicians, and influences on him lived long enough to witness the real genius of the man. Neither did his father, who died very shortly after Beethoven went to study with Haydn in Vienna in 1792.
Is It Important To Play Different Instruments?
I believe it is, and that applies even today. You get some people who are multi-instrumentalists. They seem to be better at what they do than those who concentrate on just one instrument. And that applies, especially if you are a composer.
If nothing else, you get an appreciation of what other instruments can do. And that helps when you are writing parts for different instruments and fitting the sounds and the potential of the instrument together.
A Developing Instrument
With Beethoven, it is the piano for which he is most well-known. The piano, as he grew through his early and teenage years, was still a developing instrument. There were recognized manufacturers who found ways to sell their instruments.
One such way to persuade the respected musicians of the time to play them was to offer favor. They would donate a piano to them for this purpose, providing the recipient said nice things about the instrument. Not unlike sponsorship arrangements in the modern age.
Beethoven, therefore, played pianos made by different manufacturers, though he did have a favorite.
The Pianos He Played
So, back to the question, “What instruments did Beethoven play?” We know he played more than, but Beethoven’s favorite instrument was the piano.
As to what kind of pianos did Beethoven play, he used pianos by the German builder Johann Stein. After Stein’s death, his daughter, also a piano builder, changed the name to Streicher. Beethoven still occasionally used their pianos.
When he first arrived in Vienna, he was impressed by the work of Anton Walter. He is credited with developing the “returning hammer system” for striking the keys. This made playing easier and faster. Beethoven was known to use his pianos.
Three other manufacturers supplied pianos for him. These were Erard, Fritz, and Graf. All of whom designed and built pianos of the highest order. And all of which were pianos Beethoven used and admired.
But above all of them, his favorite piano was a Broadwood that was made in London. Capable of six octaves, it had two pedals. But, above everything, Beethoven loved its sound most of all. A sound that resembled the grand pianos in today’s concert halls.
If you are not familiar with Beethoven’s music, here are some of his most famous works:
- Fur Elise – One of three of his outstanding pieces that also includes Moonlight Sonata and Sonata Pathetique.
- Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – A drama from his “heroic” period.
- Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 – His masterpiece and a piece of work most claim as the greatest music ever written.
Want to Learn More About Famous Composers and Musicians?
We can help. Take a look at our comprehensive articles on The Baroque Music Period, The Romantic Period of Music, Amazing Facts About Mozart, Amazing Facts About JS Bach, and Little Known Facts about the Nutcracker Suite and Tchaikovsky for more information.
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What Instruments Did Beethoven Play – Conclusion
You may not have been aware before that the great man was a multi-instrumentalist. He mastered other instruments to a decent level and, in the case of the Violin and Viola, to a high level. This while becoming a virtuoso on the piano, which we all know about.
Of course, Beethoven wasn’t the only classical composer to have these skills. Mozart also played Claviola, Violin, and Viola, as well as early designs of the piano.
Beethoven, though, was in a period where the piano as we know it was developing fast. And, so to become a virtuoso on piano as well as mastering the other instruments was one measure of Beethoven’s musical genius.
Until next time, let the music play.