Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Program Notes

Symphony No. 8

Beethoven conceived his symphonies No. 7 and 8 during a period of deep unhappiness. In 1811, the 41-year-old composer was facing old age without ever having been married. Increasingly withdrawn and antisocial because of his worsening deafness and ill health, Beethoven worked on the symphonies into 1812, the year he suffered intensely from parting with the "immortal Beloved" of unknown identity, with whom he had had a brief and passionate affair. In the same year, Beethoven's high-handed and futile attempt to prevent his brother Johann's marriage to a housemaid resulted in the brother's estrangement. Despite these emotional upheavals, he completed Symphony No. 7 in the spring of 1812, and No. 8 in October of the same year.

The two symphonies seem a pair of mismatched brothers, the former Dionysian, the latter compact and concentrated--a "tour de force of tight packing," as musicologist Michael Steinberg writes. Where the seventh is the last of the expansive style Beethoven had been developing during the previous decade, the eighth has often been seen, by modern listeners as well as Beethoven's contemporaries, as a throwback to the styles of an earlier period.

The eighth also suffered in comparison to the seventh at its premiere. The seventh's first performance had been held in December 1813, along with Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, a patriotic potboiler. Both were met with great praise. Beethoven then premiered Symphony No. 8 two months later, on February 27, 1814, unfortunately placing it between the two earlier works. The size and exuberance of the other two overwhelmed the smaller eighth, and critics sniffed at it. In addition, although the symphony does present a nostalgic look back at the departing era of Classicism, it also contains a great deal of Beethoven's peculiar brand of irony and tongue-in-cheek humor. Audiences could not decide whether this work was meant to be taken seriously or not. When Beethoven's student Carl Czerny noted that the eighth wasn't as popular as the seventh, Beethoven is said to have replied, "Because the eighth is so much better."

The eighth can puzzle musicians for a different reason. Beethoven was unusually meticulous in his specifications of articulation, dynamics and phrasing in his scores. However, some of Beethoven's metronome indications in No. 8 (dotted half note = 69 for the first movement, quarter note = 126 for the third movement trio) sound rushed and unmusical even when played by the best of orchestras. Many theories have been advanced for why the composer demanded these tempi, none of them wholly satisfactory. Slowing the tempi, but keeping them on the brisk side, seems the best solution.

The first movement, Allegro vivace e con brio, is brisk and fiery, with several brief melodies following fast and furiously upon each other. Indeed, it is hard to believe that such a wealth of ideas and exuberance can be contained within such a concise framework. Beethoven's peculiar humor appears when, after starting in the symphony's home key of F major, the movement suddenly swings into D major instead of the expected dominant key of C for its secondary theme--then just as abruptly changes to the "correct" key of C. The development section grows in a long crescendo straight into the recapitulation, nearly drowning out the return of the first theme. (This bothered Gustav Mahler so much that he reorchestrated the passage for his orchestra's performances of the work, giving the theme to the timpani). Beethoven tweaks the movement into the "wrong" key once more, then the opening theme gets the final word.

The Allegretto scherzando is a reworking of music Beethoven had written in tribute to Johan Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel was an inventor who designed some of the ear trumpets Beethoven used, as well as a contraption he called the panharmonicon, which included automatic flutes, clarinets, trumpets, violins, cellos, drums, cymbals and triangle. At Maelzel's urging, Beethoven had composed Wellington's Victory for the panharmonicon, but eventually decided it sounded better with a real orchestra. He wrote the eighth symphony's Allegretto to imitate Maelzel's most recent invention, the metronome. (It should be noted that another inventor, Dietrik Nikolaus Winkel, created the first practical metronome in 1812, and Maelzel just refined it--but was first to patent, manufacture and promote it.) The winds open the section, playing an even and insistent ostinato of 16th notes that continues throughout most of the movement. A motif of rapid 64th notes in the second subject, which ends the movement, has been seen as a joking suggestion that the metronome has broken down. No one can stand such an infuriating device for long, the ending seems to say.

The third movement, Tempo di Menuetto, is most likely to blame for the symphony being associated with older styles. Although minuets were common in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven had always used the much faster scherzo form in his previous symphonies. Though he employs the slower minuet form here, Beethoven's minuet does not quite remind us of a reserved, stately dance. Instead, this dance is more energetic, the accents heavier and the crescendos more insistent, although the melodies still move gracefully. The central section features a lovely duet for horn and clarinet. 

In the final movement, Allegro vivace, Beethoven once again plays with the "expected" keys of the symphony, going much further than he did in the first movement. The last movement takes off at a brilliant speed but quite softly at first, dropping down to a pianissimo marking, until a surprising forte C-sharp in octaves. That C-sharp, so far from the opening key of F major, seems dropped in at random, and it disappears equally quickly. We will not be allowed to forget about it, however. Meanwhile, we are led through a dense thicket of key changes, moving from A-flat major to A major, then herded back into F major by the bassoon and timpani. (The timpani is in fact tuned to an octave F, rather than the usual tonic and dominant. This tuning, unprecedented in 1812, pleased Beethoven so much that he used the device again ten years later in the scherzo of Symphony No. 9.) We bump into the brusque C-sharp again and swerve into D-flat (aka C-sharp) major, visit F, nearly slip into D major, and are confronted in the coda by the insistent C-sharp, which pushes the music into F-sharp minor. But the timpani again save the day, pounding away at E-sharp/F, until they "rechannel the music into the paths of righteousness," as Michael Steinberg writes. The coda is itself an extravagant joke; at 236 bars it literally doubles the length of the movement. But having steered us circuitously back into F major, Beethoven has a last bit of fun by banging the tonic F major chord over and over, 45 times--rather as if waving a big flag, "Look, we're almost finished!"--and the work ends in an enthusiastic burst.

February, 2006