Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading Beethoven's 8th

Beethoven wrote his Eighth Symphony in F Major within a few months in 1812. Again, like his Fourth Symphony, it is often perceived as small and lightweight between the "sound" of the Seventh and the "fury" of the Ninth. Beethoven seemed to have an affection for it, however. He is said to have considered it better than the Seventh Symphony, an opinion in which I would concur. (I have always suspected the Seventh of being tastelessly noisy.) Beethoven himself waved his hands around at the Eighth's premiere in 1814, though being nearly deaf, he did not realize that the concertmaster was actually conducting.

Movement I, marked "Allegro vivace e con brio" (fast, lively, and with spirit) is a vigorous number with lots of strong accents and loud-soft contrasts. It begins with a three-phrase theme that exemplifies these characteristics, immediately followed by a mostly loud transition passage that seems to overflow with high spirits. A happy-go-lucky second theme follows in a more relaxed atmosphere, though it begins in the "wrong" key of D before "correcting" its way to the dominant key of C. (Believe it or not, listeners in 1814 noticed this and reacted, in some cases, with shock.) Then comes a relatively long codetta that builds up tension and volume, then introduces its own thematic idea before ending in a loud oscillation between two C's an octave apart. This signals, first, a repeat of the entire movement so far; then, the beginning of the development.

Beethoven begins the development by toying with fragments of the opening theme, combined with the oscillating octaves from the end of the codetta. The music steadily builds in intensity until it reaches a huge climax - surprisingly, not in the development section, but at the beginning of the recap, where the opening theme appears in a truncated and super-loud form. This theme gets more play time before the transition steers us toward the second theme and the codetta. When we hear the oscillating octaves again they are F's, the tonic note. Everything after them is coda - a coda that supplies us with a little more development of the opening theme before transforming it into powerful strains of nobility and triumph. Nevertheless the ending is not the series of loud, tonic chords you would expect; after a couple of surprising hesitations, the final bars are poignantly soft, with a riff from the opening theme actually playing across the final chords.

Movement II, "Allegretto scherzando" (roughly "not very fast, playful") is as close as this symphony gets to a slow movement, and it isn't slow at all. If it wasn't in sonata form, I would be tempted to call it a scherzo - making Beethoven's Eighth, like Tchaikovksy's Sixth, a symphony with two light inner movements (perhaps the only resemblance between the two symphonies). Beethoven's friend Mälzel had recently invented the metronome, so the clockwork-like accompaniment to this movement's first theme is said to be a musical joke on Mälzel. Some have even suggested that the second theme's distinctive burst of rapid, repeated notes is like a badly-made metronome coming unsprung. Motives from the first theme come back in the codetta at the end of the exposition section. The development section is extremely brief, serving mainly as a transition back from the exposition's dominant ending (in F) to the movement's overall tonic (B-flat) for the recap, which in good sonata form stays in the tonic to the end. Nevertheless, Beethoven adds a coda in which the orchestra seems to laugh at its own joke.

Movement III is a rustic-sounding, heavily accented Minuet - or rather, Tempo di Menuetto. In truth it does not breathe the spirit of the minuet of Haydn's day, though in 1814 such a minuet would have sounded tediously old-fashioned anyway. The Trio is almost literally a trio, dominated by a pair of horns (one of them alternating with a clarinet) crooning over a running string bass. The tune they offer up is so sweet and touching that the strings can't help but burst in.

Movement IV, "Allegro vivace," is arguably the most serious movement of the four, which only underlines the novelty of this symphony. Its first theme, built on a series of triplet repeated notes, opens the movement in a tone of subdued exultation, which soon breaks out into full-bodied strains of celebration. A loud C-sharp comes out of nowhere to interrupt this theme - an unsettling moment, after which the music goes on as if nothing has happened. As in the first movement, the second theme enters the scene in the wrong key (in this case, A-flat), then abruptly modulates to the expected dominant (C) before letting loose with a brief, triumphant codetta. The first theme hesitantly kicks off the development (without a repeat of the exposition). Beethoven creates something of a fugato out of various thematic fragments, building up to a huge statement of the first theme before ending the development with an abrupt transition back to F - notably using an octave oscillation reminiscent of the first movement.

The recap proceeds as expected, including all the unexpected touches from the expo, such as the loud, out-of-the-blue, unison C# and the wrong-key entrance of the second theme - though, since the "right" key this time is F, this passage has been transposed to D-flat. This might have been Beethoven's way of pulling the nose of armchair musicos who were apt to consider a such an unexpected key-relationship tantamount to heresy. Beethoven concludes the movement with an exceptionally long and complex coda. Taking its departure from the first theme, the coda swells and swaggers through a chain of modulations all the way to the distant key of A, where the opening theme is loudly repeated. Then those oscillating octaves come back, suddenly move down to F, and bring back the theme in its original key.

Did you think it was over? Ha! Beethoven is just softening you up! Now he starts what sounds like another recap of the beginning of the movement. Only, when he gets to that glaringly out-of-place C#, he lets it completely take over, forming the pivot of a key change to the incredibly remote key of F-sharp minor, where he repeats the principal theme in a heretofore unheard form. As this new argument goes into full swing, he abruptly slams that F-sharp down to an F-natural again and emphatically reestablishes the tonic key. Then, when you really think you're listening to the final, solidly tonic chords, he upsets the equilibrium one more time with a very loud and unusual harmonic progression (which, however, gets us back to the dominant in five chords). The horns and flutes muse over the triplet theme in a moment of uncharacteristic calmness; then the full orchestra joins in a final statement of the theme, followed by an almost ridiculously long conclusion whose purpose, aside from giving one or two fragmentary reminders of what has gone before, is to assert the tonic beyond a shadow of doubt.

IMAGES: A Dover miniature score of this symphony; its composer; and a page from Beethoven's autograph sketches for this symphony, which he initially planned as a piano concerto.

EDIT: Herbert von Karajan conducts the 8th Symphony with, I believe, the Berlin Philharmonic in the video below.

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