Happy 250th to our namesake.
I like Beethoven. After all, he is VAN’s namesake. I’ll admit to wildly conducting along with the Fifth, in my bedroom, at age 13—the first classical music I ever loved. But one of the things that makes Beethoven so likable is the uneven quality of his work. No perfectionist, you can absolutely tell when he was phoning it in or doing a gig for cash. In other words, he was a working musician as well as a great composer. As the obligatory adulation of his 250th anniversary year begins, that’s worth remembering. Here are Beethoven’s 10 worst pieces, ranked.
10. Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra in C, Op. 56
The great advantage this piece has over many others in Beethoven’s B-list is that it lends itself to all-star interpretations. Richter, Oistrakh, Rostropovich—and Karajan! Anne-Sophie Mutter, André Previn, Lynn Harrell—and Kurt Masur! Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Yo—well, you get the picture. All that prowess tends to obscure the fact that the piece lacks much invention or development. It only sounds like good Beethoven in flashes, like the ominous opening and pretty second movement, leaving us to regret the really great stuff we know is coming in later works.
9. “Gratulations-Menuet” in Eb for Orchestra, WoO3
Yes, this piece has a melody, but I couldn’t sing it back to you—and I couldn’t do so even while it was playing. Parts of the string accompaniment writing are unbelievably clunky. Also, too many punctuating final chords for such a brief and silly work. Still, some points for pretty clarinets.
8. Allegro and Minuet in G for Two Flutes, WoO 26
As a former flutist, I have a terror of those minor works by great composers that become part of the repertoire of instruments without a ton of better stuff to choose from—just so people can put Beethoven (or Schubert or whoever) on their recital programs. In this example, it’s: Thirds. Thirds. THIRDS! If Beethoven had any other idea in this piece, I can’t find it.
7. “Grenadiermarsch” in F for Mechanical Clock, Hess 107
This piece is the 1798 equivalent of that composer in every grad school who has cool Max patches but indifferent pieces. The sound of this musical clock is cute for about 30 seconds. Then you realize that it’s just dressing up a dumb march that, at five minutes, is still too long.
6. “Prüfung des Küssens,” Aria for Bass and Orchestra, WoO 89
Comedic pieces are fine—as long as they’re actually funny. This piece has an “Entführung aus dem Serail” energy, but less catchy, and without Mozart’s slangy bawdiness.
5. Sonatina for Mandolin and Piano in C Major, WoO 44a
The final movement of Beethoven’s monumental Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111 has been described as “proto-jazz,” the invention of a genre that was yet to exist, a profound grasping into Time. This piece, too, invents a branch of music that was foreign to Beethoven’s era: awful bluegrass Muzak.
4. "Für Elise" WoO 59
Think “Für Elise” is good? Alright, here’s 10 hours of it.
3. Bundeslied “In allen guten Stunden” Op. 122
This work opens with irritating staccato winds, and things don’t get better when the chorus enters. The men and women alternate or sing at the same time without counterpoint. The melody has the stepwise character of the “Ode to Joy,” but somehow in dumb. Maybe it’s the pedantic repetitions at each pitch level. Forget all the good hours; this was a terrible four minutes.
2. "Wellington’s Victory" Op. 91
An obvious choice. Ham-fisted, tinny, obnoxious, and with a level of motivic sophistication that would make even Hans Zimmer blush. “This could be Beethoven ‘worse’ ever [sic] composition!” wrote someone in the YouTube comments. Almost—but that honor is reserved for another work…
1. Trio for Two Oboes and English Horn in C Major, Op. 87
….as much as I love the oboe, the instrumentation of this work is inhumane. Even professional recordings are out of tune. How could they not be? The Trio is also harmonically banal and melodically forgettable. And, at four movements—organized symphony-style—and nearly 20 minutes long, it’s a total slog. By the “cheeky” grace notes and figuration in the finale, you’ll be in need of a hot shower. ¶