Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beethoven's 8th Symphony: Getting Behind the Music

Beethoven conducted the first public performance of his 7th and 8th Symphonies in 1814. Stuart Malina conducts the 8th Symphony this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony, part of the Masterworks program that also includes Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite, Ives' "Unanswered Question" and a viola concerto by Czech composer Zdenek Lukas with the principal violist of the orchestra, Julius Wirth.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

You can hear the conversation I had with Stuart about the concert in this podcast (the link takes you to his website - click on the 'podcast' link under the post title).

(Don't forget, this weekend's concerts are part of the nationwide drive "Feeding America," sponsored by the League of American Orchestras. Please bring non-perishable food items to the Forum for either concert. For more information, click here.)

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Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 is often overlooked in the sequence of his nine symphonies even though Beethoven himself had a special fondness for it (calling it "my little one") and preferring it to the 7th.

(You can read more details – or at least my thoughts on the matter – in a parallel post at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.)

Since we normally think of a composer finishing one work before moving on to the next, I’d like to point out that Beethoven was a highly accomplished multi-tasker, writing several works if not concurrently, at least working out certain details simultaneously, often making great use of that back burner.

Look at the dates of all nine symphonies – not just when they were completed or premiered, but when they started showing up in his sketch books:

Symphony No. 1 in C: 1794 or 1795 to 1800
Symphony No. 2 in D: 1801-1802
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”): 1802-1804
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat: around 1804 (while working on Fidelio) to 1806
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor: sketches between 1800-1804, begun in 1804 and completed in 1808

So far, everything looks fairly continuous, finishing one symphony before going on to the next. But it still goes against the conception that there were two years between symphonies while he concentrated on other works.

Keep in mind that between 1802 and 1804, in addition to the “Eroica,” Beethoven was also working on the opera Fidelio, the “Waldstein,” “Appasionata” and “Kreutzer” Sonatas – but also, during this time, sketching material that would eventually be part of the 5th Symphony which he put aside on a number of occasions in order to complete the 4th Symphony as well as Fidelio, the three Razumovsky Quartets, the 4th Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Mass in C.

Eventually he completed the 5th while working on the 6th which were then premiered together at the same concert. Some of the 5th's sketches go back to the notebooks of 1800. Though most of the work was done between 1804 and 1808, the first two movements were largely complete by 1805 when he put it aside to compose the 4th. So, by some quirk of Fate (pun intended), for whatever reasons he chose to put the C Minor aside rather than wait to begin the new B-flat Symphony, the most epic of Beethoven’s heroic symphonies almost became an even-numbered symphony.

Symphony No. 6 in F (“Pastoral”): sketches appear as early as 1803, written between 1806-1808
Symphony No. 7 in A: sketches in 1809, completed 1812 (some sources say April, others “Summer”)
Symphony No. 8 in F: sketches in 1809, written between completion of 7th and August or October, 1812
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (“Choral”): sketches in 1815 & 1817 (including an idea for another symphony in B-flat), then 1822-23 (first three movements complete), last movement finished in 1824.
Symphony “No. 10” in E-flat (left unfinished): fragments of ideas unrealized, found within the sketchbooks for the 9th (1822-24) – at one point, Beethoven mentioned the 9th would be an instrumental symphony, the “Ode to Joy” a separate cantata, but the 10th would end with a choral movement)

While Mozart and Schubert were spontaneous composers who sometimes seemed to write things down as fast as they heard them in their head (part of Mozart’s creative process, apparently, was to work things out in his head even before he put pen to paper), Beethoven struggled with new works over a long gestation period, as can be seem from the dates between some of the earliest sketches and the date of completion.

It’s unlikely, if he waited until he’d completed the 7th, Beethoven might have composed the 8th in a month or even four months as is usually stated. If he wasn’t actively working on it, the fact there were sketches for ideas made concurrently with the 7th – ideas that did not fit into that particular work – it’s very likely this new symphony was gestating similarly to the way he composed the 5th and the 6th, two remarkably contrasting works.

Therefore the 8th is to the 7th as the 6th is to the 5th – and presumably as the 10th might have been to the 9th. (Barry Cooper’s controversial realization of the 10th’s sketches are so disappointing by comparison, we have to remember that an unfinished 9th symphony realized from sketches before 1822 would have become a very different composition.)

Ironically, Beethoven was setting up his own odd/even conundrum.

If anything, Beethoven not only compartmentalized his creativity, working of contrasting works simultaneously, he compartmentalized his life from his creativity. While we could say the 5th is “about” his personal struggle with his deafness, the music manages to transcend that to a universal level that can be appreciated as the struggles of an archetypal hero or perceived as the listener’s own struggles with adversity, some immediate crisis that, through Beethoven’s music, we might find inspiration to overcome.

(This is essentially the way we interpret Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies, except the hero doesn’t always win. You can read more about his three “Fate” Symphonies here, here and here.)

The 7th is often described as a public work, easy to access and appreciate (uncomplicated). The 8th is considered more abstract without the dance-like enthusiasms heard in its companion. Perhaps, as a more “aristocratic” or “courtly” work, it comes off as a throw-back to Haydn’s era, therefore old-fashioned, nostalgic. Yet there are many parallels between them: the joyful smiles of both opening themes (once past the 7th’s slow introduction), the rhythmic pulse of the 2nd movements, the dance of the 3rd movements or the humor and exuberance of the finales.

Except in the 8th, it’s not as overt – again, perhaps more subdued by comparison, a citified person as opposed to one letting his hair down in the countryside, but both having a good time.

There is a stronger differentiation between the 2nd movements mostly because the 7th’s is in the minor mode and, at the tempo it’s usually taken, comes off like a funeral march. But the 7th’s is marked “Allegretto” and the 8th’s “Allegretto scherzando,” instead of the traditional slow movement, marked “andante” or “adagio.” (Andante is a leisurely walking tempo, but Adagio is slow – Lento, even slower. But Allegretto is not as slow as Andante but not as fast as Allegro, a fast, more lively tempo, the traditional tempo for a symphony’s first movement.)

Both “slow” movements are fueled by a pulse – in the 7th, by the steady quarter and two eighth notes, then two quarter notes, like a march – bummm bum-bum bumm bumm ; in the 8th, the bup-bup-bup-bup in the winds are 16th notes but pervade the texture much in the same way the 7th’s march-like rhythm underpins everything.

Whatever Beethoven may have intended (if anything) in his 2nd movements, the steady pulse in the 8th’s comes originally from a humorous canon he’d jotted down as a joking tribute to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the inventor of a metronome-like device that helped musicians systematize tempos. This was, however, only Mälzel’s latest invention to cross Beethoven’s path: earlier, in 1808, he invented an “ear trumpet” which Beethoven tried to help overcome his deafness; for something called a “panharmonicon” which was a kind of musical juke-box, a contraption that could imitate the sounds of an orchestra, Beethoven originally conceived his “Battle of Vittoria” (eventually known as “Wellington’s Victory”), reworking it for orchestra when the mechanical device proved to be less than adequate. Mälzel also invented a mechanical chess-player, but that’s another story…

The 7th is propelled by its rhythms – many of the “themes” grow out of nothing more than repeated notes in a given rhythm. The 8th is more tuneful in the traditional sense – for instance, the not-quite-a-minuet (the old-fashioned 3rd movement before Beethoven replaced it with a scherzo or “joke”) compared to the wild country dance of the 7th.

Rhythm is a driving force behind the finales, as well. The 7th's may be more like “composing under the influence” compared to the 8th’s (see below), but there are still unexpected turns (the sudden changes in dynamic, the sound of the timpani playing in octaves – interesting sound when you consider Beethoven was probably too deaf to appreciate it – and the overall genial humor).

But the finale of the 8th is fascinating for another reason. So far, this symphony is very short compared to the rest of them and this at a time when Beethoven was working towards elongating the forms he was using.

Traditionally, the “sonata form” that forms the basis of sonatas and symphonies was in three parts – the Exposition (where, as a student of mine once said, “the composer exposes himself” – or rather, states the movement’s main themes), the Development (where these ideas are taken and ‘developed’ or expanded or dissected and discussed – like a debate, the exposition might be the statement of the topic, the development becomes the “argument”) and then the Recapitulation (where these ideas are put back together again, rounding off the discussion with resolution).

To the exposition, a composer could add more themes or more transitional material between themes. To make sure the listener was well aware of the materials, this exposition was usually marked to be repeated. In the development (which in some composers is often brief, almost perfunctory; in others, the meat of the movement), a composer can just keep spinning out this material, creating more drama and more tension before it resolves into the recapitulation. But after this “recap,” composers started adding a “coda” (literally, “tail” in Italian) which extended the drama of the resolution. Haydn’s might be fairly brief but Beethoven turned them into “second development sections” where listeners might think “here we go again.”

In the 8th, it seems just when you think the movement is over, he begins a coda – and then when you think that’s over, there’s another section (or another coda) until, eventually, when you do reach the end, he gives you no less than 23 measures of final chords – the traditional V-I cadence, that dominant-to-tonic stamp that seals the final resolution, but here with not one final tonic chord but 15 of them! As if to say, “yes, it’s officially over! Really! Seriously! No, I’m not kidding, this time! That’s it! Done!”

Here is Tafelmusik (an early music group from Canada) conducted by Bruno Weil performing the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.
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And I haven’t even begun to get into what was going on in Beethoven’s life when he was writing this symphony!

Dick Strawser

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