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Beethoven is crucial to the importance of the development of Western music. His body of work stands at the crossroads between the 18th century and the 19th, between the codification of "classical" style and the Romantic period that followed.
The music of Beethoven is rooted in formal structures: sonata forms, dance movements, and rondos. But throughout the three periods of his career, those structures were used in new ways, to express power and emotion.
Beethoven established himself early as an uncompromising, virtuoso pianist. He was one of the first composers to freelance, establishing himself as an equal to the noble class and paving the way for how composers did business in the 19th century. His early concertos and symphonies became popular with Vienna audiences, who took the German-born composer for one of their own.
But it was his Third Symphony, the Eroica, that broke fresh ground, revising and expanding the symphony in terms of size, shape and form.
The Eroica marks the beginning of Beethoven's fertile 'middle' period, which includes works like the Fifth Symphony, the 'Razumovsky' Quartets and his lone opera, Fidelio. The premiere of the 'Eroica' also coincides with the "Heilingstadt Testament", a letter written to the composer's brothers where he confessed his growing deafness and resolved to carry on creating music.
The last years of Beethoven's life were spent in silence, as his hearing had completely failed. But this period led to some of his most experimental work, pushing the boundaries of music into new directions. The final piano sonatas (including the Hammerklavier) date from this period. So does the massive Missa Solemnis, and the final string quartets, which include the difficult Grosse Fugue.
It was his final symphony, the Ninth, that would summate his career. The Ninth was longer than any other symphony written before it, with expanded movements that stormed the heavens and reflected on cosmic truths. In the final movement, Beethoven added the voice to the orchestra in a whol new way, using four vocal soloists and a massive choir to create the triumphant shout of the 'Ode to Joy.' The Ninth is more than just a symphony: it is the closest thing music lovers have to a national anthem.