Beethoven: which is the relative difficulty of these pieces, and which one is the easiest?

December 22, 2020, 7:03 AM · Hi. I’m interested in knowing the relative difficulty of the following pieces by Beethoven, both to know how difficult they are, and to know which one would be the first I could grasp, maybe now, maybe in a year or two, even if it’s a single movement. When I say relative difficulty, I’m referring both to relative to other Beethoven pieces as to other famous pieces (as difficult as Vivaldi A minor/ Accolay / Mozart 5 / Paganini 24, etc). The pieces I’m interested are:

- All of the violin + piano sonatas (specially the “spring” one, since I know Kreutzer is very difficult, but spring seems easier)

- Violin concerto in D

- Romances op. 50 and 40 for violin and orchestra.

- Any other relevant piece I may have forgotten. I mentioned those since I like them.

Thank you very much!

Replies (30)

Edited: December 22, 2020, 7:30 AM · The place to start would probably be the Romance Op.50. Out of the violin sonatas, perhaps the easiest is the Spring. The reason is probably because the violin often has the melody. Violin Sonata is a misnomer as they are actually sonatas for piano and violin (in that order), and this relationship between the two instruments is essential to the violinists understanding. This is probably why, for instance, Op.24 is much more popular than Op.23 as the Spring Sonata starts with a nice violin tune, but the equally wonderful Op.23 sonata the violin starts straightaway with an accompanying role. I wouldn't recommend starting with the concerto as your first piece of Beethoven - there are of course the quartets, trios, quintets, septet to play as well!
December 22, 2020, 7:24 AM · Spring is fairly approachable. If you can play Accolay then you have the technical ability to play it. Same with Romance no 2 though that goes a bit higher on the fingerboard.

However the Romance 2 is usually the first Beethoven anyone learns, because it's *musically* straightforward. The early Sonatas are not great teaching pieces because they are mainly piano sonatas with violin accompaniment - they make little sense on their own. The first movement of Spring at least has a tune for the violin, though the piano has the better deal still!

Romance 1 is a bit tougher then 2 because it has a horrible double-stop opening and more chromaticity, but still good for an advanced learner.

Kreutzer sonata and the concerto are both very advanced pieces, they are not as technically challenging as the Paganini Caprices but they require very mature technique and are among the most musically challenging pieces to play. Leave them until you are comfortable with several other major Romantic concertos and sonatas.

December 22, 2020, 8:28 AM · IMO Spring is easier than the Romance in F, but I may be alone. Spring is straightforward and just takes time to figure out its tricky bits (wonderful learning piece). The Romance requires shifting jumps as high as 6th position that are very exposed and must be nailed perfectly and rather delicious but still challenging runs. I think its harder to get to a satisfactory performance level. It also has tempo issues that must be solved (the orchestral passages are boring at the tempo required for the violinists 1/32 passages. I note that most performances actually speed up the tutti.

OTOH of the sonatas, the spring is very well known and any slip will be obvious to much of the audience; it has dynamic more than technical challenges. I actually found #8 (at least the first movement) to be more approachable than the fifth and more forgiving but maybe #7 and maybe #10 is the most musically rewarding (not a great fan of the Kreutzer, to me its too bitty.

Its hard to put the concerto within the same discussion. Forget it for now!

Edited: December 22, 2020, 11:05 AM · If you're a reasonably competent pianist you could have a look at Beethoven's piano version of his violin concerto, a version that is still being performed and recorded.

A relatively underperformed work is his Triple Concerto, probably underperformed for mainly logistical reasons. I was in the orchestra once for a performance, and the three soloists were all 3rd year students from one of the Colleges in London, therefore not too expensive, and the piece was well within their grasp. The cello seems to get the lion's share of this one, introducing the main themes, while the piano has more of a supporting role.

December 22, 2020, 11:09 AM · If you have a good pianist friend this piece is a real 'hidden gem' to compliment the sonatas. Once again the piano here is much more important than the violin.
December 22, 2020, 11:59 AM · The question is half interested and half curiosity (how hard can Beethoven get?). I'm interested in learning something by Beethoven as soon as I can, although I think I'm still a bit below the "easy" Beethoven pieces (I've played Vivaldi A minor, and I'm comfortable with baroque pieces, but still haven't played Accolay and struggle with getting a vibrato that lasts for a couple of beats).

James Woodrow: I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're right. I've always referred to them as 'violin sonatas' to distinguish them from the piano ones. But they're called piano and violin in that order. I've listened to most of them, and I like them. I have yet to listen to his quartets and trios, but I tend to like chamber music. And I'll listen tonight to the piece you linked. I'm an amateur musician, but I'm a way more competent pianist than violinist. With the piano, I can focus on music, but with the violin I'm still too focused on getting technique right. Thank you very much.

Chris Keating: I'm almost at Accolay (my teacher suggested it as a soon-to-play piece) but not still there, so what you said is good news to me. Thank you!

Elise Stanley: I know the concerto is in a different level (and absolutely out of my current reach), but I just included it to satisfy a curiosity. Thank you for the technical challenge explanation about the pieces.

Trevor Jennings: I'm quite interested in what you mentioned. I also play the piano (better than the violin). I'm at a level where I can play some of Beethoven's piano sonatas (I'm currently learning the Tempest 3rd mov.), Bach's Partitas, Mussorgsky pictures, some Rachmaninoff, etc. The problem is that I don't find enough time to study all I want to play, while learning violin and having a job full of deadlines. I'll have a look at the piano version of the concerto these days and see if it's within my level. I also enjoy listening to the Triple concerto. It's a wonderful piece. Thank you.

December 22, 2020, 1:01 PM · Your question to how hard Beethoven gets - you're looking at the late string quartets, which are (possibly with the exception of Op.127) technically and musically much harder than the violin concerto.
Edited: December 22, 2020, 2:49 PM · If you view Patricia Kopatchinskaja's & Fazil Say's video* of the Kreutzer you may think there's something in the theory that Beethoven was coming close to writing a double concerto. Both instruments are at concerto level.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OF9fneQ50Us&t=1306s

December 22, 2020, 4:44 PM · Somebody needs to contradict the statement that "the piano is much more important than the violin". This is very much true for all but one or two of Mozart's violin sonatas.

If you look at Beethoven's opus 12 with Mozart in mind you will find that Beethoven went out of his way to create equity. All three of the opus 12 sonatas are conscientiously balanced and are "real duos". Of course even Beethoven was forced to give the pianist many more notes than the violinist by the nature and technique of the two instruments. But in terms of musical contribution they are truly well balanced.

It is also worth pointing out that they are not all equally difficult: op. 12/1 for example is easier than 12/2 which in turn is easier than 12/3 (technically for the violinist). Likewise op. 30/2 (the famous one in c-minor) is harder than op.30/1 and 3.

The violin parts in the piano trios are about on the level of difficulty of the sonatas while the string quartet first violin parts are harder (op. 18 are easier than the Kreutzer but op. 59 are about on that level but with little of the showiness of the Kreutzer).

Edited: December 22, 2020, 11:11 PM · A proper sonata for violin and piano gives balanced attention to both instruments. It often seems that the piano has the advantage because it's a polyphonic instrument that can handle both melody and accompaniment simultaneously. However, the Mozart sonatas are by no means drivel for the violin (the way the cello parts are in Haydn trios). Having played through the easiest of the Mozart (K 304) and Beethoven ("Spring") sonatas on both violin and piano, I can attest that both parts are also of comparable difficulty.

I agree with Elise that the Romance Op. 50 and the Spring Sonata pose quite different challenges. I found them about equally difficult.

The easier piano trios are quite playable -- these are hardest for the pianist in my experience. The Op. 18 quartets are okay too although there are a few hard movements. Hard really just because they're terribly fast.

Finally there are the Beethoven string trios. They are lovely. I played through a couple of them with my daughters over the summer while we were all isolating. The girls play violin and cello, so I took the viola parts!

Edited: December 23, 2020, 5:57 AM · Responding to Albrecht’s challenge re the roles of the two instruments.
The classical era had two different approaches on how to write for the violin and the piano. The first, and initially the most popular, was the ‘accompanied sonata’. You rightly mentioned Mozart, and he is following on from a tradition from composers such as Johann Schobert and Johann Gottfried Eckard. In the early Mozart Sonatas, you can almost take the violin part out and you have a coherent piece. From Mozart onwards you have composers such as Andreas Romberg (who worked with Beethoven), who wrote his three sonatas as ‘Three Sonatas for Pianoforte with the accompaniment of the Violin’.
The antithesis to the ‘accompanied sonata’ is the ‘duo concertante’. This way of writing is much more equal between the two instruments. These are generally much more virtuosic. The technical level for the vast majority of ‘accompanied sonatas’ is not particularly challenging and reflects that they were often written for the amateur market rather than for public performance. Good examples of the Duo concertante are composers such as Anton Reicha and Louis Spohr (of chinrest fame). If you look at a Spohr violin sonata on IMSLP it is much more challenging than the Mozarts, Rombergs, Schoberts etc
Beethoven has an interesting mix. I would argue, and this is to do with my previous statement that you challenged, that he is largely writing in the ‘accompanied sonata’ genre. Particularly pieces like Op.12 no.3 & Op.24. The really obvious exception is the Kreutzer Sonata – I accept my sweeping statement of the violin being less important may not apply here. The score says ‘Sonata per il Pianoforte ed uno violino obligato in uno stile molto concertante come d’un concerto’. This tittle really tells us a lot about the piece. ‘Concertante’ - implying the more equal sonata genre. ‘Concerto’ – an odd way to describe a sonata, but presumably hinting at the difficulty. However, again importantly, the order of the instruments in the tittle must not be ignored.
December 23, 2020, 9:07 AM · Thanks, Paul for giving the string trios a shout out! I love them too, should not have forgotten them. I do not believe that they are particularly easy to play; they are about equal with the rest of Beethoven's early chamber music (up to and including op. 18).

And since we are talking trios: There are two serenades:

- op.8 for violin, viola and cello (some of its movements may actually be the easiest violin parts in Beethoven's output): Nice, several short movements, light hearted, the adagio is beautiful.

- op. 27 for flute, violin and viola: This one is more tricky technically, e.g. the variation theme features 4 part writing without the flute even playing; plus the piece is very difficult for the ensemble*. Its character is very Beethovenish (in his witty mood!). Highly recommended in spite of its difficulties!

* Years ago, when we were still students, three of us rehearsed op. 27 along with Max Reger's serenade for the same combination and used it for a house concert (a program that I would recommend also!). We found the Reger the easier of the two pieces (and we played it much better too). This in spite of the fact that the Reger features almost more accidentals than notes...

December 23, 2020, 10:08 AM · James, thank you for your scholarly explanation of the genre. I was mostly objecting to the word "much" in the wording "much more important". It seems to me rather over the top.
December 23, 2020, 1:44 PM · I like this forum. I asked a very simple question and it derived in a quite interesting discussion from which I’ve learnt many things I didn’t know, and have discovered some pieces of music I didn’t know.

Thank you very much!

Edited: December 23, 2020, 4:55 PM · There's also Fritz Kreisler's "Rondino" based on a theme by Beethoven. It has some position work on the D string that is probably a bit more difficult than Accolay. But the Kreisler is easier than any of the sonatas, I would imagine.
December 23, 2020, 6:29 PM · @Albrecht, the Peters edition (which I recommend) of the Beethoven string trios contains the other small-ensemble works such as the serenades and the flute trio. (My wife plays the flute but she has not ventured to try that one yet. Since we are all home now we might try some Mozart or Devienne.) I agree some of the string trio music gets hard, again mostly because of tempo. There is one movement that contains an "Alberti bass" figure for the viola that is just too fast for me to ever play, so I play those few bars in half time. That's my only real cheat, though. I think Beethoven was smoking something when he wrote that. Aside from that, I won't claim that anyone would have wanted to hear our rehearsals. Like all such classical-period music, it is much more demanding that it appears from the printed page, for intonation, ensemble, precise rhythm, and other more subtle aspects. This thread inspires me to want to get out some of my chamber music and practice. Trouble is that I have to practice three parts -- first, second, and viola because I have not yet formed a group with stable assignments.
December 24, 2020, 9:51 AM · Miguel - I trust that we answered your question in terms of the pieces you mention. The op. 50 Romance and the Spring are probably the easiest technically. The op. 40 Romance is somewhat more difficult. The Kreutzer and Concerto are probably the most difficult, with the rest of the sonatas somewhere in between. My favorite of the sonatas in #10; I agree with Elise on it. If you have a teacher, that person is probably in the best position to advise you on the order in which you might want to learn them and when to start. Good luck!
Edited: December 24, 2020, 1:33 PM · Tom Holzman: Yes, my question was answered in a pretty straightforward way, followed by some interesting digressions. I have a teacher who told me I could start by playing the spring sonata, and that I would be technically prepared for that (I know the positions, scales and arpeggios he taught me)... except for my vibrato, which is very rudimentary and tense. I asked him about sonatas, but forgot to ask him about the other pieces I mentioned here. I even own a nice Barenreiter edition of the romances that someone gifted me when I was starting to play the violin. I won't see my teacher in three weeks, so I posted the full question here.

In any case, I must work to finish a couple of pieces he assigned me. I tend to like baroque music and I'm quite comfortable there (I want to reach a level that lets me enjoy Bach sonatas and partitas), but I want to get a bit into classical and romantic pieces.

Thank you very much, and merry Christmas.

December 26, 2020, 5:11 PM · Miguel - Speaking of Bach, he wrote a wonderful set of six sonatas for violin and continuo. If you have not tried them, you are probably at a level where you would enjoy playing them.
December 26, 2020, 7:57 PM · I agree with Tom -- BWV 1014 is a lovely piece. I have the Peters edition and it's okay but I found myself changing a lot of the fingerings. Get a Henle or Bahrenreiter urtext if you can afford it.
December 27, 2020, 6:17 AM · I’ll listen to those sonatas, since I don’t know them very well. I’m a strong adherent of good books (and music editions). I have a weakness for Barenreiter (I find them aesthetically pleasing and easy to read). I’ll add these sonatas to my “soon-to get” ones, along with the piano partitas. I just got the Beethoven piano sonatas, so I’ll wait some months until I make my next purchase. It’s completely worth making a little effort to get good books. Thank you again.

December 27, 2020, 6:53 AM · The Barenreiter edition of the Bach sonatas is excellent.
December 27, 2020, 9:29 AM · About the Bach sonatas: Try to find an old fashioned recording with a piano (hard to find these days). I believe that in this case the piano is a superior choice to a harpsichord, against HIP purists. It is very hard to balance a duo with harpsichord, especially if you play on a modern fiddle that projects well. But even if you can balance the sound you are sadly restricted in your dynamic range and have to make sure that you don't cover the harpsichord--a problem you never have with a piano. Keep in mind that Bach's "Clavier" means any instrument with a keyboard.

Moreover most of the movements are very contrapuntal. And a modern piano is better capable to make counterpoint understandable to audiences than a harpsichord; it is also easier for listeners to understand one of the "well-tempered fugues" played on a piano than on a harpsichord.

I performed the one in A-Major with an organist once. There the balance problem is on the organ; more than one or two registers will drown out the violin completely. And you are still limited as to dynamic range on the violin But the organ is of course the ideal instrument for contrapuntal music.

Bach has generally a reputation as a stern traditionalist. But there was also an innovator in him and these six sonatas are maybe the most stunning example of that: He anticipated a genre that really appeared on the scene about 100 years later; you could argue that it was Beethoven who fully established it.

December 27, 2020, 11:00 AM · @Albrecht - I have a recording of the Bach sonatas played by Oistrakh. He chose to record with a harpsichordist (Paul Pischner) rather than a pianist. Since he was not much interested in HIP, to me his choice speaks volumes. Also, when I studied them, my violin teacher could not play piano, but accompanied me by playing on her violin the right hand music of the keyboard. She commented that before doing that, she had not really understood how important the precision of the harpsichord's articulation was to the sonatas. So, I think there are some countervailing considerations.
December 27, 2020, 5:19 PM · I don’t understand much about historical performances, but I love baroque music played on piano, as long as it’s played without (or with very little) pedal, and without much legato, like Schiff does, or like Glenn Gould did (although he was slightly eccentric at times). Piano offers the option to establish a “hierarchy” of voices at any time, and that makes well played baroque music very beautiful. But I strongly dislike performers who take Bach and play his works in “romanticised” baroque style, full of pedal and rubato. You understand what I mean.
December 27, 2020, 6:26 PM · I gotta agree with Tom.

Leonid Kogan + Karl Richter
David Oistrakh + Hans Pischner (Apparently Pischner died in 2016 at the age of 102)
Henryk Szeryng + Helmut Walcha
Arthur Grumiaux + Christianne Jaccottet

All make a great case to me for violin + harpsichord with a particularly austere beauty. There are plenty with piano that are great, including David Oistrakh + Lev Oborin, but I tend to like the very different atmosphere and pulse of the violin and harpsichord for these works. I'm sure I've listened to the whole Szeryng set at least ten times.

Edited: December 27, 2020, 9:36 PM · I love the Mullova / Danotone (harpsichord) recordings of the Bach accompanied sonatas (and find them well balanced).

Of course, as with any performance or recording, you might come to think that the interpretation might be improved upon, which would be a great reason to learn to play them.

And in any case, much of what we get out of the music is what we subjectively put into it.

December 27, 2020, 11:33 PM · I like very much the Monitor recording of Bach sonata #6 with Oistrakh and Vladimir Yampolsky on piano. Oistrakh's tone quality is the best, and Yampolsky is wonderful. On the other side David and Igor Oistrakh do the Bach double concerto.
Edited: December 28, 2020, 10:54 AM · Along with the slow movement of Piano Sonata Op 10 no 3, and the slow movement of the Purcell G-minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, the slow movement of Op 12 no 2 (I've said this before - AND I'll say it again!!!) is one of the most emotionally intense slow movements ever written. And if you attempt it before you are ready, you won't spoil it for yourself later (I know - my dad exposed me to playing it before I was 10. On the other hand, I had no inkling of the jewel that immediately preceded the Pathetique [no, I Don't mean Tchaik 5!!!], until I sight read it for myself at Uni - no I still can't attempt the outer movements and I struggle with the trio).
December 30, 2020, 1:15 PM · Estimating your current level from what you described, the concerto and most sonatas are at this point out of reach.
You would invest too much time with no satisfying results.
Good that you are sensible to look for something that you can fulfill much better. As you progress, the other ones will become an option, later. :-)

I have personally played the spring sonata as a child or very young teenager, and I loved it. No idea if I could have mastered the romance, then.
I have never played the romances, because I don’t really like them, (sorry). As an adult, I have once looked through them, and thought that they aren’t really comfortable to be played. So, I would favor the sonata.
There is also a little rondo, woo 41. This is really easy, technically, but hard to avoid it getting boring. I recently played that one. Hard to choose a good tempo- but can be a fun challenge.

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