LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed the Eighth Symphony in 1812; it was first performed in Vienna on February 27, 1814. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.

Beethoven composed his Eighth Symphony in tandem with the Seventh. Some of the sketches for both works appear together in a manuscript known as the Petter sketchbook. He apparently liked the challenge and the change of pace that comes with working on two very different pieces at the same time. Indeed, he had already done the same thing with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. But though the two new symphonies were finished almost together, the Seventh was premiered on December 8, 1813, about two months before the Eighth, which was not heard until February 27, 1814 (unlike the Fifth and Sixth, which had been premiered on the same concert in 1808).

The premiere of the Seventh had been one of the most successful concerts of Beethoven’s life, establishing him without question as the greatest living composer—though the work that truly ignited the audience’s enthusiasm on that occasion was the potboiler Wellington’s Victory, also heard for the first time. When Beethoven premiered the Eighth two months later, he sandwiched it between repeats of the Seventh and Wellington’s Victory. Under the circumstances, the Seventh, a far longer work, overwhelmed the new score with its sheer visceral energy. A letter in which Beethoven offered both symphonies to an English publisher seems to patronize the later work somewhat: he describes them as “a grand symphony in A major (one of my most excellent works) and a smaller symphony in F major.” But size alone is not the central factor here. If Beethoven could call the Eighth a smaller work, he surely meant so only in the objective sense of the number of measures contained within. When Carl Czerny once remarked that the Eighth was much less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven replied gruffly, “That’s because it’s so much better.”

Surprisingly enough this jovial symphony was composed in large part during a period of family strife, when Beethoven went to Linz to interfere in the private life of his thirty five-year-old brother Johann, who had recently allowed his young housekeeper to move in with him. Beethoven, a complete puritan in matters sexual (and possibly jealous, since he never had a woman in his life), was outraged by the situation and obtained a police order that the girl return to Vienna by a certain date. Johann evaded the issue by marrying her, but not before an ugly confrontation between the two brothers. During this tense period, Beethoven was finishing the jovial Eighth.

The opening movement is small in length compared to its sibling, the Seventh, but it is full of events. The opening phrases form a complete melody (a rarity for Beethoven), but immediately after the cadence the next phrases open out and grow in an astonishing way. False leads cheerfully undermine the tonal solidity that Beethoven had been at such pains to establish in the opening bars, seeming to settle in to the highly unorthodox key of D major (instead of the dominant, C) for the secondary theme. But scarcely has the theme started before it falters, suddenly aware of its faux pas, and swings around to the expected dominant.

The development is one of Beethoven’s most masterful demonstrations of musical timing. At first he simply marks time with a rhythmic vamp in the violas, jumping up and down an octave. The basic melodic idea turns out to be the very first measure of the symphony, unheard since its single earlier appearance. Now it dominates the discussion. The development is a long crescendo over its entire length. The volume increases gradually; at the same time phrase lengths become progressively shorter, so that things appear to be moving faster and faster, until the movement culminates in the blazing return to the home key, while the bass instruments proclaim the principal theme. The recapitulation is quite straightforward until the coda, when a bassoon (recalling the leaping octaves heard at the beginning of the development) leads into a new harmonic world, another crescendo, and a new version of the main theme in the “wrong” key. After a solid return to the tonic, the orchestra fades out delightfully, leaving one final salute to the opening measure in the bass at the very last instant.

The second movement is a humorous homage to Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, a device that Beethoven found invaluable in giving composers, for the first time, a way to specify precise tempos for their music. The cheerful, jesting movement is filled with humorous touches, including a suggestion at the end that the mechanical marvel has broken down. Its Allegretto scherzando marking makes it rather faster than a slow movement was expected to be.

Beethoven compensates by making his nest movement—for which we expect a rollicking scherzo—Tempo di Menuetto, a marking he had long since ceased using in his symphonies. This movement particularly is responsible for the symphony’s reputation as a Haydnesque “throwback.”

Having held his horses back, so to speak, for three movements, Beethoven lets them have their head in the merry rush of the rondo like tune that seems about to come to a close on a customary dominant C when it is suddenly jerked up to C-sharp, only to have the unexpected note drop away as quickly as it had arrived, apparently without consequence. The same thing happens at the recapitulation, and though the bubbling high spirits leave us little time to worry about details, the sheer obtrusiveness of that note lingers in the ear, demanding consideration. The questions are answered in the immense coda, where the obtrusive C-sharp note returns with harmonic consequences, generating a new and distant tonal diversion that must be worked out before we can return safely home. At this pace, Beethoven only leaves us breathless with delight at his exhilarating wit. —©S.L.