In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Online Resources
  • Music Editions
  • Biographical Documents
  • Biographies and Life-Work Studies
  • Journals and Essay Collections
  • Sketch Studies
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Intellectual, Social, and Political Contexts

Music Ludwig van Beethoven
John D. Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0272


Few if any other composers in the history of European art music have inspired more words on paper than Ludwig van Beethoven. Even during his lifetime (b. 1770–d. 1827), Beethoven’s music inspired both heated debate and thoughtful reaction among some of the era’s most influential critics and philosophers, a discourse which would only intensify after his death and establish him as a singular force in musical thought and a formidable challenge for future composers. His seemingly all-encompassing absorption of the musical language of the 18th century, and his mastery over the full range of its expressive potential, attracted notice among connoisseurs, fortuitously as newly established concert-giving institutions and specialized journals began to conceive of and shape a canon of musical works. At the same time, many other listeners sensed that his music—in its dynamism and rude, often explosive contrasts—projected a sui generis compositional persona, a perception which spurred on his younger creative peers. If there is a red thread in the variegated written responses over the last 250 years, it is the tension between these two views of Beethoven, as a culmination of the past and as a finger pointing firmly toward the future. While words on Beethoven have surely been written in every language in which music is written about, the most essential ones for the modern student or scholar are in German and English, and serious research requires reading proficiency in both languages. Not all of the primary sources have been translated into English, to say nothing of important secondary literature, and in recent years the German academic publishing market has been robustly producing a number of fine compendia and reference works. English-language scholarship has historically distinguished itself, on the other hand, in biography and Sketch Studies. And while it might come as a surprise that there still remain neglected aspects of Beethoven’s body of work, it does not take long for the reader to realize that many words have been devoted to a relatively small corner of his output—namely a handful of Symphonies, String Quartets, piano Sonatas, and other instrumental works that embody what has come to be known as the “heroic style.” Much of the freshest recent scholarship, then, explores the previously marginalized works—music for dancing, singing, worship, the theater, political celebrations—while another belated but welcome development focuses on the historical, intellectual, and aesthetic contexts that shaped his music.

General Overviews

Given the immense amount of scholarship on Beethoven and his music, it is regrettable that accessible overviews in English are so rare—the Grove Music Online article (Kerman, et al. 2001) has not been significantly updated in over forty years, aside from an admirable final section on Reception and an expansion of the bibliography, both from the late 1990s. Cooper 1991 and Stanley 2000 therefore remain better starting points for the English-speaking student or scholar. Far more comprehensive and up-to-date treatments are, on the other hand, found in German publications. The similarly titled Beethoven-Handbuch and Das Beethoven-Handbuch both offer thorough and recent compendia of scholarship on the works and their context, the latter multivolume set even more so. Even for readers with little German, these are worth consulting for their copious citations.

  • Cooper, Barry, ed. The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music. London: Thames & Hudson, 1991.

    Organized in thirteen well-defined chapters by four authors on numerous aspects of Beethoven’s biography and music—including his timeline, family tree, contemporaries, personality, philosophy, musical background, working methods and daily schedule, performance practice, reception, and literature—each with its own concisely written subchapters. While neither exhaustive in any one aspect nor particularly daring in its interpretive stances, it offers the best overview in English of the facts and the primary sources behind them.

  • Hiemke, Sven, ed. Beethoven-Handbuch. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2009.

    Besides a large introductory chapter on “Beethoven and his World” and a closing one on Reception, the focus is squarely on each musical genre, each given its own chapter by a different expert that first outlines epistemological problems and then delves into individual works in lesser or greater detail. Most valuable in its summaries of critical and historiographical discourses, backed up by well-selected but not all equally exhaustive bibliographies. Available online with a subscription to EBSCOhost eBooks.

  • Kerman, Joseph, Alan Tyson, Scott Burnham, and William Drabkin. “Beethoven, Ludwig van.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    While a colorfully written classic, the core of the article—its biography and works sections (each over forty years old)—reflects a fairly dated perspective. The newer section on reception by Scott Burnham is, on the other hand, an excellent introduction to the topic. Overall, most useful as a reference given its works list and bibliography, even if the latter is over twenty years out of date.

  • Riethmüller, Albrecht, gen. ed. Das Beethoven-Handbuch. 6 vols. Laaber, Germany: Laaber, 2008–2019.

    One of the most ambitious overviews to date, these six large volumes include four on the music and two on context. Each of the musical volumes has one to three chapters on each particular genre and several contextualizing essays, therefore covering practically every work. The most indispensable is Volume 6, which contains brief entries on people, places, and ideas that Beethoven came in contact with, each with a brief bibliography.

  • Stanley, Glenn. The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521580748

    Focuses primarily on the music and its reception in a series of seventeen sharply focused essays by sixteen of the most prominent experts. Topics range from historiography and formal strategies to more summary treatments of the music by genre. Despite its relative brevity and heterogeneity of critical and analytic perspectives, this volume covers a surprising amount of ground and, due to the talent of its scholarly line-up, is packed with startling insights. Includes an excellent bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.