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Notes on Beethoven's Eighth Symphony

Composers writing symphonies in the wake of Beethoven often found themselves intimidated by his example while they worked and then were subjected to unfavorable critical comparisons once they finished. The Eighth Symphony shows that even Beethoven could find himself in a similar situation: His own compositions sometimes suffered in comparison with more popular earlier works. Robert Schumann remarked that the Fourth Symphony was like a "slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants." So, too, the Eighth is a shorter, lighter, and far more good humored work than its imposing neighbors, the relentless Seventh and the towering Ninth. According to his student Carl Czerny, in comparison with the extraordinary enthusiasm that greeted the Seventh Symphony there was initially a puzzled reaction in Vienna to the Eighth: "That's because it is so much better" was Beethoven's alleged response.

Beethoven was given to writing (and performing) symphonies in pairs. He wrote the Fifth and Sixth symphonies—so different in many respects—around the same time, and they were premiered on the same concert (with their numbers and order reversed). The gestation of his next two symphonies, the Seventh and Eighth, was likewise joined, as were some of their early performances. Both these pairs of unidentical twins raise the issue of Beethoven's even and odd numbered symphonies—of the common perception of advance in the odd-numbered ones and retreat in the even. Certainly the former are the more popular, praised, performed, and recorded. And as with Schumann's observation about the Fourth being overshadowed by its towering neighbors, the Eighth also tends to get lost in the crowd. Beethoven referred to it as "my little Symphony in F," so as to distinguish it from the Seventh, as well as from the longer and more substantial Sixth Symphony, also in F major.

A Notable Summer

Beethoven composed the Seventh and Eighth symphonies during a critical period in his life, and concentrated on the latter during the summer of 1812. Due to primitive sanitary conditions then in Vienna, summers were a dangerous time to be in the city and Beethoven always tried to relocate, which had the added benefit of getting him closer to nature that he loved so much. In 1812 he traveled to Bohemian spas. Meeting Goethe was not the only event of biographical interest that summer. It was while in Bohemia that Beethoven penned his famous letter to the "Immortal Beloved." It reveals a shared love, but one whose future course is in serious doubt. Beethoven probably never sent the letter and nowhere indicated the identity of the woman to whom it was written.

The mystery surrounding this legendary relationship has inspired a vast scholarly (and pseudo-scholarly) literature, as well as umpteen novels, theater pieces, and movies. Musicologist Maynard Solomon's identification of Antonie Brentano as the likely lover is now the most widely accepted solution in the English-speaking world, although reasonable (as well as unreasonable) arguments supporting other candidates continue to be put forth.

Beethoven completed the Eighth Symphony in October while in Linz, where he had gone to visit his brother Johann. His health was poor and one can only speculate at the repercussions of the disappointing termination of his relationship with the mystery woman. (If Brentano, she was married to a friend.) Despite what appear to be trying circumstances, this Symphony is the composer's most delightful and humorous.

The Eighth was premiered in Vienna on February 27, 1814, on a concert that also included the Seventh Symphony and Beethoven's popular "Wellington's Victory." The leading periodical of the time, the Leipzig "Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung" remarked that the audience was extremely interested in hearing Beethoven's latest symphony but that a single hearing was not enough: "The applause that it received was not accompanied by the enthusiasm which distinguishes a work that gives universal delight. … The reviewer is of the opinion that the reason does not lie by any means in weaker or less artistic workmanship (for here as in all of Beethoven’s work of this kind there breathes that peculiar spirit by which his originality always asserts itself); but partly in the faulty judgment which permitted this symphony to follow the [Seventh in] A major. … If this symphony should be performed alone hereafter, we have no doubt of its success."

A Closer Look

The first movement (Allegro vivace e con brio) is dominated by a buoyant opening theme, from which a related second theme emerges. One of Beethoven's witty touches is that the first and last measures of the movement are the same—it is the sort of thing his teacher Haydn might have done, and indeed the older master's spirit is often evident in this work. The Symphony has no slow movement, in fact, no heaviness anywhere. In the second movement (Allegretto scherzando), Beethoven delights in the recent invention of the "chronometer" (an early version of the metronome) made available to him by his colleague Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who also fashioned various hearing aids for his use. The incessant ticking of wind instruments sets the pace.

Beethoven must have felt it would be unwise to follow the already humorous Allegretto with another scherzo (literally, joke) and therefore reverted to the more Classical minuet and trio (Tempo di menuetto). Yet the amusing touches do not entirely disappear. Just try dancing to this minuet and you may find yourself tripping over the false downbeats. In the finale (Allegro vivace), Beethoven once again seems more intent on playful display than on the weighty issues he explores in his neighboring symphonies. In this extended rondo, Beethoven experiments with dynamics, instrumentation, and concludes with a long, spirited coda.

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