Classical Concert

Saturday, March 16, 1991 - 7:30 p.m.
Wilde Lake Interfaith Center


Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri
Jean Sibelius - Karelia Suite
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 8
Program Notes

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

SYMPHONY No. 8 in F, Op. 93

Composed: 1812
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1814

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio
  2. Allegretto scherzando
  3. Tempo di Menuetto
  4. Allegro vivace

Beethoven always referred to this, perhaps his least imposing symphony, as “my little symphony in F,” to distinguish it from the much longer Pastoral Symphony, which is also in F. The work is possibly the strongest argument against looking for evidence of a composer’s life in his music, as this merry work (not an expression often linked to Beethoven) was written in the midst of emotional chaos and turmoil.

Even by Beethoven’s daunting standards of (usually self-created) misery, 1812 was a bad year. His hero, Napoleon, finally hit the historical buffers in Russia; for a dyed-in-the-wool Jacobin like Beethoven, this was very bad news indeed. From this time on, his strident Republicanism became notably more muted, a good idea in the all-embracing police state that was Hapsburg Vienna. However, this was the least of the composer’s problems. The summer of 1812 saw him in Bohemia, scribbling the famous tear-stained “eternal beloved” letter, swearing perpetual love and adoration to an unnamed lady — and spawning an entire academic industry. Many PhDs, many commercial authors and several movie directors owe their livings to attempts to identify the object of Beethoven’s desire. The most likely candidate, Antonie Brentano, rewarded Beethoven’s ardour with a course of action familiar to songsters from Schubert to Elvis: she dumped him and married his best friend.

Beethoven fled from his sorrows to the home of his brother Johann in Linz, where he promptly set about giving his brother very unwelcome (not to say ironic) advice about his choice of wife, resulting in the composer being literally pitched into the street, clutching the manuscript of the Eighth Symphony. It was while straining to hear Johann’s strident views on his behavior that Beethoven became aware that he had finally become totally deaf.

And what evidence is there in the symphony of all this? None whatever. It is easily his cheeriest, most life-affirming symphony; it even lacks a proper slow movement. The extent to which Beethoven could insulate himself from his own emotional realities may be best shown by the fact that, at the time he was writing his symphony, he also composed Wellington’s Victory, an ethically ruthless (and musically appalling) celebration of Napoleon’s defeat that ironically became his most famous work in his lifetime (and most derided in ours). The two works were premiered at the same concert. The symphony was received politely; Wellington’s Victory had to be played three times.

When Carl Czerny (student pianists may care to pause to spit) asked Beethoven why the Eighth Symphony was so much less popular than the Seventh, he replied “because it’s better”. Whether this was the insight of genius or the father protecting his despised child is still a matter for heated debate.

The first movement is in Haydnesque sonata form. Very Haydnesque indeed, in fact, as the two subjects are related (sometimes, in Haydn, they are identical); there is also the very Haydn-like oddity that the first and last measures are exactly the same, which is not so much a neo-medieval my-end-is-my-beginning trick as an arcane compositional joke. Needless to say, Beethoven never acknowledged his debt to his teacher here or anywhere else, claiming never to have learned anything from the genial Sage of Esterháza.

There is another nod to Haydn in the second movement of the symphony, which strongly resembles Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony in its gentle ticking. Some have seen this as a tribute to Beethoven’s friend Johann Mälzel, who had just patented the metronome. The sudden burst of 64th notes in the second subject has even been interpreted as representing the spring breaking on the metronome - one of the problems with early models. But note that the movement is not actually slow.

The so-called Minuet of the third movement is actually anything but, with displaced accents that would scythe down anyone foolish enough to try to dance to it and a solo clarinet part in the Trio that was only just playable at the time. The instrument capable of playing the highest note of the solo came onto the market literally weeks before the premiere.

After all this mirth, Beethoven rebalances the symphony with a substantial, highly-organized sonata-rondo finale that goes to some very strange places indeed. A movement in F major in 1812 has no business visiting F# minor, and is even less likely to escape back to the home key by falling a semitone into F like a man tripping over a curb. It is startling tricks like this that made this symphony Stravinsky’s favourite among Beethoven’s works. There is also a good case for letting it become ours.

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