Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 | Symphony Study No. 12 of 118

by Glenn on September 15, 2015

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
first performance: 1803

I recently listened to the second of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. It was fun to  become reacquainted with it.

It’s interesting to consider how the world has changed from Haydn to Beethoven. Haydn for most of his life was a court composer. Beethoven from the beginning seems to be earning at least a portion of his living from the public (with some help from generous patrons). This is a big shift, in the sense that the audience Beethoven is trying to please is much larger than the one Haydn had to please.

The first performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 came with double and triple box office prices for the concert. Hard to imagine a modern symphony composer generating that much excitement and a modern audience clamoring for the opportunity to listen to new music and willing to pay higher prices for the experience—at least this kind of music.

A long introduction to the first movement includes “large and bold harmonic excursions” and “a wide range of musical characters, from pliant lyricism to the stern D-minor unison fortissimo …” I hope I’m not imagining that I am better able, at this stage of life, to hear what Steinberg is writing about. When you’ve heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or some twelve-tone creation by Schoenberg, nothing from the previous centuries seems very radical. But as I listen to Beethoven, he does seem to venture farther from home harmonically than Haydn. And Beethoven seems to stay farther from home for longer, almost to the very end of the first movement if I’m hearing correctly.

Steinberg points to “the lyricism, the wit, the easy and playful energy” of the Symphony No. 2. He also points out that the idea of a movement in a dance meter (3) is different from Haydn to Beethoven. In Haydn you usually had a movement designated with a word like minuet and it was easy to imagine someone dancing to it. (Not that anyone would.) In Beethoven’s First there is a “Menuetto” but it is much too fast for dance. And in Beethoven’s Second, there is no pretense. It’s now called a scherzo.

The symphony is changing. Steinberg writes that most people consider Beethoven’s Third Symphony to be his first radical one, demonstrating a dramatic change in approach to the symphony. But Steinberg believes the difference between Beethoven’s First and Second is more profound than the one between the Second and Third.

I ended up listening to two performances of this work.

First, I listened to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, my chosen band for this listen-through of the Beethoven symphonic oeuvre. Well played. Just really good. The playing is crisp and clean, with a lot of separation in the articulation. It is precise without sounding like precision was the goal. There is life in the notes and a beautiful space to the recording. The one thing you notice about these performances by Gardiner and the ORR is that the tempos are fairly quick. Even the slow movement is not that slow. There’s a lot of energy and nothing you might call pathos. They play with a lot of restraint.

Later, I listened (in my car, which is not ideal) to Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a little nostalgia about this recording for me. When Music Millennium actually had an entire store (“Classical Millennium”) devoted to classical music (this was when, in the not-too-distant past, an entire store devoted to classical music was a viable financial enterprise) they had a lovely gentleman working there who had a wide-ranging understanding of performances of classical music. It was great fun to ask him about his favorite performances of this or that work. His life was all about classical music. What a treasure he was. So this performance comes from a complete collection of the Beethoven symphonies by Böhm and the VPO that he recommended. It was a great recommendation, although it is interesting to hear the Vienna Philharmonic take a more languid approach to tempos than Gardiner does.

So, the same notes on the page will sound very different based on the orchestra/conductor presenting it. The technical quality of the playing is one aspect, but there is this whole other area of approach. It’s kind of like Romeo and Juliet. Do you want to see it in its historical setting à la Franco Zeffirelli

or do you want to put it in Verona, Florida as Baz Luhrmann did?

There must be others, but here are a couple of approaches to presenting these older symphonies. One is HIPP (Historically Informed Performance Practice) and another is the Germanic-Austrian unfolding tradition. Gardiner is trying to do his Beethoven “HIPP” style and Böhm, who recorded his Beethoven series back in the ‘60’s, is following an inherited tradition of music-making, which means, for example, that a slow movement by Beethoven gets treated the same way as a slow movement by Bruckner, music from the classical era played with romantic era sensibilities.

I don’t know enough either to have an opinion whether one is right or wrong or to get worked up about promoting one over the other. Since I believe there is room for both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann in presenting Shakespeare, I think there is room for both Gardiner and Böhm.

*  *  *

What have we learned so far:

The idea of a symphony is hard to define. Mozart seemed to keep a consistent four-movement form, but Haydn on a number of occasions had either more or fewer movements, although I suppose you could argue that those come from early in Haydn’s symphony writing when a form hadn’t been established. He is more consistent with four movements later in life. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be a rule for what a symphony should look (or sound) like. Well, I’m sure someone somewhere has written a rule that no one follows.

I’ve come to the conclusion that these symphonic works are a kind of literature for the ears. Most of us can’t arrange our lives in such a way that we are listening to classical music all day—if that’s even a worthy goal—but to come to these symphonies and listen from time to time, as opposed to simply hearing ever-present music in the background of our lives, is nourishing and may inform the rest of our listening (whatever we normally listen to), in the same way that a serious novel or work of literature may inform the rest of our reading. I think it was Leonard Bernstein who once wrote that Americans hear too much music and listen to too little. At times, that has been true for me, especially when working in anything like retail or shopping or eating out where the music choice is dictated from on high and is just always there.

One comment

[…] ☑ Symphony No. 1 | #11 | John Eliot Gardiner | Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique ☑ Symphony No. 2 | #12 | John Eliot Gardiner | Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique ☑ Symphony No. 3, Eroica | […]

by The Symphony Project « on 6 March 2016 at 10:14 am. #