Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 | Symphony Study No. 19 of 118

by Glenn on November 15, 2015

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Opus 93
fp: 27 February 1814, Vienna

Allegro vivace e con brio
Allegretto scherzando
Tempo di Menuetto
Allegro vivace

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony uncorks as much as begins. It begins with tremendous energy, which settles for a moment, and then continues. I am wondering how many times I have heard the Eighth on the radio but not really known what it was. And, as has happened with each of Beethoven’s Symphonies, I am wondering why I have neglected this work over the years.

I learned from Michael Steinberg in The Symphony that Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the Seventh and Eighth symphonies were conceived in pairs of contrasting creations. There is a yin and yang (not his term) to these symphonies. Steinberg describes the Seventh as “Beethoven’s (for the time being) last and vibrant word on the big style he had cultivated in the preceding decade.” (It will be twelve years before Beethoven’s Ninth comes on the scene.) The Eighth is something of a throwback. It’s his second shortest symphony (after the First). The music is highly concentrated. Steinberg writes, “It is as though he were picking up where he had left off in the densely saturated first movement of the Fifth Symphony to produce another tour de force of tight packing.”

These two themes of big (the Seventh) and compressed (the Eighth) will describe the music Beethoven composes for the rest of his life.

The Eight Symphony looks both ahead and behind. Halfway through the first movement you realize this is in sonata form as Beethoven tosses around the ideas of the opening theme in a developmental passage. But then he is looking forward, too. As the development comes to an end and the opening theme is brought back, Beethoven introduces a new counter-theme. So we’re headed home and headed somewhere new at the same time. It’s remarkable. The first movement ends tenderly. Quite unexpected.

The second movement famously features the ticking of a metronome at the open.

The last movement brings back plenty of fire. Steinberg spends four long paragraphs describing everything that goes on in Beethoven’s “wonder of a finale.” He then notes that Beethoven “was proud of what he had achieved here. Someone asked him why the Seventh Symphony was more popular than the Eighth. ‘Because the Eight is so much better,’ he growled.’”


Much of the delight in listening afresh to these symphonies has come from the particular interpretive style of John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. It feels like they have reinvented these works, although I think it’s more fair to say they have uncovered them. Years of sediment and contemporary performance practice had built up a patina over these creations before he (and others) came along with a sandblaster (and some period musical instruments and historically-informed performance practices).

I should add that Gardiner is not the only one to pursue this recovery work. This pursuit has been going on for decades. Some other names I am acquainted with in this movement are Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Concentus Musicus, the Hanover Band founded by Caroline Brown, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Some years ago, Michael White described the basic mise-en-scène in The New York Times:

“FORTY years ago there was not much of an issue about how you performed a Mozart symphony, a Bach cantata or a Handel oratorio. You played it the way Wilhelm Furtwängler, Thomas Beecham or Herbert von Karajan might have: with mid-19th-century ideas that had hardened into accepted norms and generally meant big symphonic forces, heavy textures, slow speeds and modern instruments.

“Then came “early music,” also known as period performance. Early musicians researched period instruments, rediscovered forgotten composers, revived old performance practices and in effect declared war on the interventionist musical culture of the mid-19th century. They set out to make their case with fundamentalist fervor, espousing lighter forces, faster speeds and period instruments. And through the 1970’s and 80’s they mutiplied and gathered force.”

Sir Simon Rattle is an interesting character in this scene. He is a thoroughly modern conductor (with the Berliner Philharmoniker for now and set to take over the London Symphony Orchestra in a few years) but he is also one of the principal artists with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement.

What I admire about Rattle is that he has found a way to let historically informed performance practice inform his work with the Berlin players without inciting a mutiny.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall has a free interview of Sir Simon Rattle talking about Beethoven’s Symphonies. Some highlights of that conversation:

1. In discussing the pair of the Seventh and Eighth that were written at the same time, Rattler adds his thoughts on how these two symphonies contrast. The Seventh is “extreme” in terms of “rhythm,” “emotion,” and “hysteria,” where the Eighth is “very compact, full of irony and wit.” He says the Eighth was “a last tribute of love to Haydn,” but also a way to set himself apart by saying, “I can do something on your scale that is colossal.”

2. Beethoven invented a new type of music. “Some of the most honest music that was ever written.” “Direct.” “Unadorned … fierce … true.” According to Rattle, “Beethoven is not capable of dissembling.” There is “a kind of inner rage in the music.” You “can’t think of this music as comforting and cozy.”

3. Beethoven’s hearing loss begins after the Second Symphony. Rattle can’t imagine anything more cruel. It cut off a sociable man from society. I think Rattle has a hard time imagining what Beethoven would have sounded like had he kept his hearing.

4. Rattle says that Mozart is lyrical and Beethoven is rhetorical—he is an orator. A Beethoven symphony” is “a set of possibilities.” With the Eroica, Rattle describes how the symphony is no longer a collection of contrasting movements, but “a journey that ends with a heroic statement.”

5. Rattle refers a number of times to the French Revolution that was going on in Beethoven’s early adulthood. You need to connect Beethoven to his times. It’s hard for me to make these connections and I appreciate someone who can. Rattle talks about “the storm” in the Pastorale symphony. It’s tempting to see (hear) it as a literal storm, but Rattle says, “The storm is not about the weather.” “It’s psychological.” “It’s the terror of the Revolution.” The Eroica was going to be called “The Bonaparte,” until Napoleon declared himself emperor.

6. Rattle is a poetical speaker, in the sense that he drops in wonderfully visual and compelling images from time to time:

a. Recordings are like “snapshots,” that capture a moment in time. They aren’t the final word because the five-year-old is now ten, but when you look at them (i.e. listen to the recording) there is a great feeling of what was.
b. Recording the Beethoven symphonies is “an Everest to climb.”
c. “If you’ve done the Seventh correctly, all you can do is stagger to the bar afterward.”
d. The Fifth is “like wrestling with a herd of rhinoceroses.”

7. Rattle talked about a style of play. He used the word “Beethoven” as an example of what he meant. No matter how loudly you say the word “Beethoven,” the syllables are never pronounced the same. The word always ends softly. It’s never Bee-tho-VEN. This was an analogy for how the music should be played—repeated notes are not all equal.

8. It was interesting to hear Rattle talk about the sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The interviewer brought up a press conference early on in Rattle’s time in Berlin where a reporter accused him of ruining the sound of the orchestra and Rattle replied, “I’m so terribly sorry.” It was a statement full of irony. His response in this interview was to say that you can’t really ruin the sound of this orchestra. They play with a tradition of a “deep pulsating dark sound.” He believes the Berlin Phil plays with “energy” and “drama” and “sheer fierceness.” Rattle mentioned the two cycles of Beethoven that Wilhelm Furtwängler recorded with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras. He noted that you can tell it’s the same conductor, but that the recordings sound very different because the orchestras play differently.

9. Rattle believes “You can do too much” with these symphonies. Modern orchestra can play so well technically but you need to “find the shock” and “the difficulty” in the music and “feel the boundaries of music being pushed” and “not clean it up.” Also you can overdo the emotional content in the music.

10. The Berlin Philharmonic is playing the Nine Beethoven Symphonies over five days multiple times this year at home and on tour. Rattle talked about the choice and trade-offs of the concert pairings of 1 with 3, 2 with 5 (including a Leonore overture to add some time), 4 with 7, and 8 with 6. He didn’t think chronological would work, so he married the more lyrical symphonies with those that aren’t. Rattle said that each symphony is a particular journey. None of them are “easy listening” music.

11. Rattle offered that the Sixth should be played last at a concert because it offers a kind of benediction, which I thought was an interesting word.



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by The Symphony Project « on 5 March 2016 at 8:00 am. #