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Notes on Beethoven's Second Symphony

In the summer of 1801, while composing his Second Symphony, Beethoven revealed the secret of his deteriorating hearing in a long and passionate letter to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler. After recounting assorted professional successes, he goes on to disclose that "that jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a nasty spoke in my wheel; and it amounts to this, that for the past three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker." As his friend was a physician, still living in the composer's native Bonn, Beethoven provides a detailed account of his symptoms and laments the constraints his increasing deafness places on his social life ("I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf") and professional situation ("… if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?").

A little more than a year later, and just as he was completing the Second Symphony, Beethoven penned his "Heiligenstadt Testament," the famous unsent letter to his brothers in which he expressed utter despair over his loss of hearing. In this revealing confession he alludes to suicidal thoughts and states that on account of all of his torments "I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me." What if Beethoven had killed himself in the fall of 1802, at age 31? What had he accomplished at this point in his career and how would he have been remembered? The question assumes a special poignancy when one considers that Schubert died at the same point in his life, almost to the very day. Mozart had not lived much longer.

Beethoven Before the Myth

The Beethoven who thought of killing himself at 31 is very different from the mythic figure who eventually came to redefine music and whose life in so many ways epitomizes that of the Romantic artist. During his 20s Beethoven was better known as a performer—a brilliant pianist and improviser—than as a composer. He had written a good many works in various genres, but nowhere near what Mozart, Schubert, and other masters accomplished by the age of 30.

Beethoven was about to embark on a "new path," as he told his student Carl Czerny. The "heroic" works of his middle period remain the best known and loved to this day, although in the early 1800s the public's favorite works were tamer pieces like his song "Adelaide" and the Septet, Op. 20. For those who had the chance to hear him perform, the first two piano concertos displayed both his compositional brilliance and virtuoso keyboard technique. Although he had published more than a dozen piano sonatas and, more prominently and recently, his first six string quartets, Op. 18, Beethoven had yet to write an opera. The compositions most associated with his name were generally aimed at domestic consumption or, as with the concertos, for his own use in performance. The genre of the symphony, in which his idol Mozart had written some 50, and his teacher Haydn more than twice that, offered new challenges.

A "Smiling" Symphony in Difficult Times

Beethoven first ventured to write a symphony during his teenage years in his native Bonn, but did not get very far. A later attempt in Vienna, during the mid-1790s, likewise proved unsuccessful, although some of its musical ideas eventually made their way into his First Symphony at the end of the century. He began sketching the Second Symphony as early as 1800, but most of the work took place during the summer and early fall of 1802—exactly at the time of the crisis confronted in the Heiligenstadt Testament.

The boundless humor and vitality of the Second Symphony—Hector Berlioz remarked that "this Symphony is smiling throughout"—challenge the simplistic connections so often made between the immediate events at a given time in Beethoven's life and the music he created. Indeed, as with his witty Eighth Symphony, also written at a period of considerable personal distress in the aftermath of his affair with the "Immortal Beloved" in 1812, Beethoven may have sought refuge in musical "comedy" at times of personal "tragedy." (Mahler did the opposite in his "Tragic" Sixth Symphony, which he composed at a time of great happiness.)

Long, Difficult, and Bizarre

"It is a noteworthy, colossal work, of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few. It has a level of difficulty, both from the point of view of the composer and in regard to its performance by a large orchestra (which it certainly demands), quite certainly unlike any symphony that has ever been made known. It demands to be played again and yet again by even the most accomplished orchestra, until the astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas becomes closely enough connected, rounded out, and emerges like a great unity, just as the composer had in mind." The modern reader might assume this critic is talking of Beethoven's monumental "Eroica" Symphony, or perhaps his Fifth or Ninth—almost any one but the Second. Yet this reaction, from 1804, is echoed by other contemporaries, who also found the Symphony long, difficult, and imposing.

Early 19th-century listeners, of course, were hearing the piece in the context of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, and of Beethoven’s own first essay in the genre. In fact, Beethoven premiered the Second Symphony at a concert that also featured the First (as well as the premieres of the Third Piano Concerto, Op. 37, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives). Comparisons were therefore inevitable—and the First won, in part because "it was performed with unforced ease, while in the Second a striving for novel and striking effects is more visible." The "striking effects" begin with the slow introduction to the first movement, which is far more imposing than what Beethoven had provided for the First Symphony. (That introduction is along the lines of Haydn's, who usually included some slow introductory section in his late symphonies, whereas the Second Symphony looks to Mozart, who generally eschewed any throat clearing to begin, specifically to the one he created for the "Prague" Symphony, also in D major.) Other parts follow, especially in the third-movement scherzo and in the extraordinarily witty finale, elicited the word most often used to describe Beethoven's music at the time: "bizarre."

A Closer Look: Berlioz on Beethoven

Berlioz, who penned some of the greatest music criticism of the century, wrote extensively about Beethoven, especially about the symphonies. It is interesting to consider what Berlioz valued in Beethoven and how he heard his symphonies, especially as they so inspired his own orchestral music, such as the Symphonie fantastique. Here is his discussion of the Second Symphony:

In this Symphony everything is noble, energetic, proud. The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner. The song is of a touching solemnity, and it at once commands respect and puts the hearer in an emotional mood. The rhythm is already bolder, the instrumentation is richer, more sonorous, more varied. An Allegro con brio of enchanting dash is joined to this admirable introduction. The fast motive which begins the theme, given at first to the violas and cellos in unison, is taken up again in an isolated form, to establish either progressions in a crescendo or imitative passages between wind instruments and the strings. All these forms have a new and animated physiognomy. A melody enters, the first section of which is played by the clarinets, horns, and bassoons. It is completed by the full orchestra, and the manly energy is enhanced by the happy choice of accompanying chords.

[The second-movement Larghetto] is not treated after the manner of that of the First Symphony: it is not composed of a theme worked out in canonic imitations, but it is a pure and simple song, which is first stated sweetly by the strings, and then embroidered with a rare elegance by means of light and fluent figures whose character is never far removed from the sentiment of tenderness which forms the distinctive character of the principal idea. It is a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure which is scarcely shadowed by a few melancholy accents.

The Scherzo is as frankly gay in its fantastic capriciousness as the previous movement has been wholly and serenely happy; for this symphony is smiling throughout; the warlike bursts of the first Allegro are entirely free from violence; there is only the youthful ardor of the noble heart in which the most beautiful illusions of life are preserved untainted. The composer still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies! Hearing these various instruments disputing over fragments of a theme which no one of them plays in its entirety, hearing each fragment thus colored with a thousand nuances as it passes from one to the other, it is as though you were watching the fairy sports of Oberon's graceful spirits.

The finale [Allegro molto] is of like genius. It is a second scherzo in duple meter, and its playfulness has perhaps something still more delicate, more piquant.

Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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Christopher H. Gibbs