LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F major, op.93 (1812), 26 minutes
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The Eighth Symphony was first performed in Vienna on February 27, 1814. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
The Eighth Symphony is often hidden in the shadows cast by the popular 40-minute Seventh Symphony and the final 70-minute Ninth Symphony. The 26-minute running time naturally gives the Eighth a diminished stature, but it packs in concentrated form, the same energy, craft and imagination of its mammoth odd-numbered siblings.
Beethoven embraced the challenge of composing two symphonies at the same time, an edict that would make any composer take pause. The Fifth and Sixth, and later the Seventh and Eighth, works so distinct and different in scope and character from each other, is a marvel and miracle birth that lacks the proper vocabulary to describe.
Composed during the summer of 1812, it was a time of personal struggle which saw the letter to the “Immortal Beloved,” complications with family and declining health issues. Yet, the Eighth is not a dark and gloomy musical journey, but the total opposite, a joyous excursion harkening to simpler times, channeling the essence of the Pastoral Sixth Symphony and the style of the symphonic father and mentor, Haydn.
In the opening movement, marked Allegro vivace e con brio, there are no extended introductions and proclamations that preface a heroes journey (Third and Seventh), nor the dark monolith statements of fate (Fifth), rather, Beethoven jumps straight into the music proper, impatient to imbibe in the elixir of happiness. In 3/4 time, the entire movement is an outgrowth of the first measure, a musical seed that is the flower head of the first theme, and which will spawn a forest of musical roots and branches.
Sections of the sonata form come through with classical clarity when the orchestra unifies in rhythmic cadences; and in these moments of strong, bold and repeated orchestral punctuations, the Beethoven of the odd-numbered symphonies, shine through with radiance. The second theme emerges after a brief silence, a sequence of rising melodic figures in the violins that climb towards the heavens, then the winds imitate and the musical garden expands.
In the development, Beethoven takes the seed from the first measure and uses a musical soil rich with cadential rhythms and motives to bear fruit in the shape of skillfully designed imitation. A view of the score can illuminate the notational geometries that arise as he layers the musical figures into larger shapes, and staggers their entrances with different instruments. To the ears this is reverie, but take a marker to circle all instances of the seed music and the score will reveal a secret bouquet of musical architecture.
In true Beethoven fashion, the arrival of the recapitulation comes unexpectedly and ambiguously with the starting music somewhat crossfaded, like a band-aid stitching two major sections together. There is a sense the development isn’t over, however, the music eventually follows the same road map, and the two themes are unified into the same key.
While a short journey, the compactness of the first movement is saturated with activity and an abundance of musical fruits to enjoy; and what is a journey without having looked back to the start. A light coda brings the musical garden back to the seed of its origin with one last hushed statement of the first measure, now the last measure.
Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, was a friend of Beethoven, and the second movement pays a humorous homage to the device. Marked Allegretto scherzando, the playful and jesting quality is immediate with the repeated staccato chords in the winds and horns mimicking the ticking of a clock. Equally short and dainty in articulation, are melodic phrases in the violin with pizzicato peppered in the strings. There is a mechanical choreography in how Beethoven divides the melody amongst the orchestra that is charming and cute. Instruments talk in alternation of staccato and legato gestures, finishing each others sentences, a kind of robotic conversation of gears turning other gears. Like with all mechanics, sometimes it breaks down, a frustration Beethoven sets to music in the form of several suddenly loud and short rapid-fire note outbursts in the strings.
The third movement is the most “classical” of the four and is often the reason the Eighth is referred to as “Haydn-esque.” A minuet and trio marked Tempo di Menuetto, the minuet features a thickly scored string section in a continuous gentle flow of eighth notes, a lyrical melody in the violins, sustained tones and short punctuations in the winds and a “heroic” horn melody. Solo passages are the main feature in the Trio with a stunning horn duet and solo clarinet gliding over a very active river of triplets in the cellos. While the essence of Haydn is strong in the large form, Beethoven peeks through in the hemiola rhythms of the softer passages that hint at the first movement of the “Eroica” (Third Symphony).
If Beethoven’s impatience to break precedent with his odd-numbered symphonies was any indication of the composer’s need to be transported express into an Elysium of joy, then the final movement lets loose a chariot of race horses to get there. In cut time and marked Allegro vivace, the music takes off at break-neck speed. Barring some brief witty pit stops, it remains at this velocity for the entire movement, a compositional exercise that is nothing short of a marathon. A rondo, the recurring melody comprised of repeated triplets and galloping figures, always rises in sequence. Jarring switches into new key areas create surprising jump cuts into episodic sections that are explosive detours. Finally, motives and rhythms are imitated in call and response dialogue leading to a breathtaking dash towards one of the wittiest finales that likely every composer has dreamed, but never dared to do. © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on May 14-16, 2021.