Beethoven, Symphony no. 8, 2017

Beethoven, Symphony no. 8, 2017

October 2, 2017.  Beethoven Symphony No. 8.  This week we’re publishing Joseph DuBose’s article on Symphony no. 8 in F major by Ludwig van Beethoven.  And again, as with all other symphonies, the problem is in selecting a performance to illustrate the article: there are too many great ones.  We decided on the 1978 recording made by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  You can listen to it here.  The 1st movement is Allegro vivace e con brio (0:01), the 2nd, Allegretto scherzando starts at 9:21, the 3rd, Tempo di menuetto -- at 13:18, and the 4th, Allegro vivace -- at 19:16.  ♫ 

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1814The Eighth Symphony was begun immediately after the completion of the Seventh. Its manuscript, which escaped the fate of that of its predecessor, is dated October 1812, meaning it was completed in a roughly four-month span. This makes it an exception to Beethoven’s usual method of composing, since his symphonies were usually sketched during the summer months, then worked out and put into full score during the winter in Vienna. 

What is truly remarkable of the work is its humorous disposition considering the events that were then taking place in Beethoven’s life. In this manner, it is like the ebullient Second that so completely and effortlessly masked the inner torment that found its outlet in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. Besides his increasing deafness, Beethoven’s health was already becoming problematic by this point in his life. Yet, of further grief to the composer was a quarrel with his brother Johann. Johann had been living with a woman named Therese Obermeyer, whom Beethoven absolutely loathed and disparagingly nicknamed “Queen of the Night.” Beethoven set out with the singular purpose of putting an end to the relationship. For what reason other than his disdain for Obermeyer is not known, but his actions certainly give credit to Goethe’s description of Beethoven as “an entirely uncontrolled person.” The confrontation between the two brothers was in all probability a mighty din.

To Beethoven’s chagrin, Johann emerged the victor when he married Therese Obermeyer on November 8th. Yet, despite this family feud, Beethoven enjoyed pleasant accommodations at his brother’s house, and the surrounding landscape provided him with ample scenery for his many romps through nature. Progress on the Eighth Symphony was unhindered, though some of its passages, no doubt, did not escape Beethoven’s furious temper at this time. (Continue reading here).

The work’s most distinguishing characteristic, though, is its humor, and in this it may even exceed the Seventh as a musical expression of Beethoven’s “unbuttoned” manner. And it was this humor that was more or less lost on the first audiences that heard the work. It was premiered in Vienna on February 27, 1814 on a program that included the A major Symphony, the Trio “Termate,” and the Battle of Vittoria. On this occasion, the Seventh again was lauded with praise and its Allegretto encoded; the new symphony, on the other hand, was not well received. Beethoven considered his Eighth Symphony a considerable advancement upon its immediate predecessor, and was quite agitated by its seeming failure. Some critics found the return to the Minuet, after the Scherzos of its predecessors, a stumbling block, as if Beethoven had suddenly reverted back to the style of his earlier years. Oulibicheff, as usual, was rather hostile to the work. Even so staunch an admirer as Berlioz found it difficult to praise. Indeed, in Vienna until 1850, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony was always announced as “Symphony in F, Beethoven,” as if the Eighth didn’t even exist. Even today, it was one of the least performed of Beethoven’s symphonies, completely overshadowed by its immediate neighbors, the ebullient Seventh and colossal Ninth, more so than the Fourth is by the Eroica and Fifth.

The first movement, an Allegro vivace, like that of the Fifth, jumps headlong into the first theme without the slightest prelude. It erupts from the violins with the support of the full orchestra, yet its middle phrase is a charming dolce passage given to the winds. This melody is given only once before Beethoven undertakes the transition into the second theme, a curious passage of long notes, off-beat accents, and which concludes on the dominant seventh of E-flat. After a bar of silence, this unexpected discord is revealed to be but an augmented sixth in D minor as the upper strings take up the dominant harmony of that key. The second theme begins in the violins, but by its final measures Beethoven deftly brings about the expected key of C major, at which point the theme is taken up again by the winds. A mischievous passage follows featuring a staccato figure in the strings that soon infects the entire orchestra until it erupts in a dotted-rhythm that momentarily forces a duple meter upon the prevailing triple time. A third melodic idea appears, a lyrical dolce tune given to the flutes and oboes that eventually brings about the close of the exposition. In the measures just before the repeat, Beethoven introduces a particularly crude figure—leaping octaves on the dominant—that are a particularly effective embodiment of Beethoven’s “unbuttoned” manner. 

These octaves become a principal feature of the first part of the development, setting in motion Beethoven’s distinctive method of breaking apart his themes as the first measure of the opening melody is tossed about the woodwinds. The music becomes obsessively concerned with this figure, appearing at one time or another in nearly every instrument of the orchestra. It ultimately builds into a furious passage of imitation between the violins and the cellos and basses. With the aid of this contrapuntal energy, Beethoven presses on towards the full reprise of the theme. When he reaches it, the theme is heard, not in the violins as before, but in the basses with the full might of the orchestra giving harmonies above it. The volume has reached fff, a dynamic marking that rarely occurs in Beethoven’s music, and the passage is a truly remarkable example of the force that can be achieved from a small orchestra. 

The recapitulation if significantly altered from the exposition, and the bridge between the first and second themes is lengthened by the introduction of a new melodic idea. The coda, too, is quite extensive. Using the octaves that had closed the exposition, it escapes into the key of D-flat major and initially concerns itself at first with the ascending scale taken from the third measure of the theme. This motif provides another wellspring of energy and the orchestra again works itself into a terrible fury, reaching for a second time a fff dynamic. The composer’s anger subsides just before the close of the movement. Quiet chords alternate between strings and woodwinds, before the opening measure of the principal theme curtly brings the movement to a close.

Like the Seventh, the expected Andante or Adagio is supplanted by an Allegretto, and its combination of spry humor and charming grace is a welcome relief to the uproar of the opening Allegro. It begins with quiet, staccato chords in the winds, which is a prominent feature of the accompaniment throughout much of this abbreviated movement. Against this backdrop, the first violins present the Allegretto’s theme, answered after each phrase by the cellos and basses. This theme itself is virtually identical to a canon Beethoven extemporized and addressed to Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, in which the repetitive sixteenth notes were to represent the ticking of his invention. It is unsure whether the canon provided the inspiration for the Eighth’s Allegretto, or the other way around, but either way, its good-natured humor permeates the entire movement. The music doesn’t stray far from this charming melody. Even the F major tune that follows quickly on its heels seems but a logical extension of the principal theme. The Allegretto is the shortest of the movements. It is humorously, if not rudely, cut short before the expected reprise of its themes by a commonplace succession of tonic and dominant chords. 

Though marked Tempo di Menuetto, the third movement has still more in common with the scherzi of Beethoven’s other symphonies than the old dance of Haydn and Mozart. Far from lacking in energy, it has a sort of lazy grace that manifests itself in the charming theme that emerges in the third measure. The Trio, also not marked, continues the same manner. Maintaining the key of F, it presents a new melody in the horns atop an accompaniment of triplets given to the cellos. The violins present the theme again at the start of the Trio’s second half, but the clarinets, bassoons, and horns find themselves here in the spotlight. A da capo repeats of the opening Minuet concludes the movement.

While beginning more subtly than the Finale of the Seventh, the Allegro vivace which concludes the Eighth proves itself an even finer example of Beethoven’s “unbuttoned” behavior, and abounds throughout with his rough humor to the point of even surpassing all the riotousness of the opening movement. It is interesting to note, before discussing the movement, that the timpani are here tuned in octaves—a practice very likely without precedent and which Beethoven would repeat in the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. The theme of the finale is rather unassuming and starts pianissimo in the upper strings. It almost seems to peter out from lack of interest as the dynamic diminishes even further to ppp. Then, suddenly, with the full force of the strings and woodwinds, a fortissimo C-sharp rudely interjects itself on the weak beat of the measure, but imbues the theme with the energy to continue as it is subsequently taken up by the entire orchestra, including all the brass. In one of Beethoven’s daring moves, the second theme is approached through the expected key of C major. Yet, just as it begins he sidesteps into the key of A-flat, and the effect combined with the sudden lyricism is truly wondrous. With equal ease, Beethoven then restores the key of C major by the theme’s conclusion after which it is repeated in the flute and oboe supported by a luscious accompaniment in the strings. A second strain follows, in which the music begins to return to the manner of its opening.

Cast as a sonata-rondo, the opening theme makes a full reprise before the development section gets underway. Once the development begins, Beethoven takes the descending figure of his theme and treats it in the most mechanical way possible, subjecting it to a seemingly endless stream of imitations, at first directly then by inversion, and the whole comes off with the utmost humor. One can almost wonder if Beethoven was here poking a bit of fun at the expense of his old counterpoint teacher, Albrechtsberger, who placed such an importance on mere mechanical devices. Closing in A major, Beethoven ends the development and begins the recapitulation by simply taking the dominant of that key and reinterpreting it as the leading tone of the tonic, with droll octaves reminiscent of the first movement facilitating the change. 

The Coda is remarkably extensive. It begins much like the first reprise of the principal theme, but Beethoven twice pauses as if he has suddenly second-guessed himself and is wondering how to continue. When the music resumes, a new idea emerges—a descending scale idea that is immediately subjected to similar imitative devices as was used in the development. The principal theme inevitably returns, in a similar manner but more substantially scored as it appeared at the outset of the movement. As the violins succumb to their murmurings again, the same C-sharp that has so indecently interjected itself throughout the movement, does so with even greater force now. Five times it is given as if determined to be ignored no longer. The theme has no option but follow its unbreakable pull into F-sharp minor, and it is left to the brass and timpani to restore the “correct” key of F major. A particularly humorous passage occurs towards the end of the movement. Against hushed tremolandi in the strings, the winds successively sound major thirds on F, starting with the flutes and descending to the bassoons, then rising up again; first as whole notes, then half notes. A last statement of the principal theme follows, and then with the full force of the orchestra Beethoven brings his symphony to a close.