Sunday 5th June, 0900-1300
Orchestra of the 18th Century
Frans Bruggen (conductor)
Friday 10th June, 0000-0700
Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Bruno Walter (conductor)
1. Allegro vivace e con brio
2. Allegretto scherzando
3. Tempo di Menuetto
4. Allegro vivace
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, from the time of the Eroica Symphony onwards, Beethoven designed his music on an increasingly large and heroic scale. In the Eighth Symphony, in common with several works that surrounds it (most particularly the F minor Quartet, Op 95) Beethoven dramatically compressed the scale and duration of the music, concentrating on its bare essentials. In this respect the Symphony's directness and disarming simplicity draws attention, more than before, to Beethoven's abruptness, violence, unconventionality and rough humour. It is also the most directly classical of his later symphonies, its scale, and the substitution for a minuet instead of a scherzo third movement, underlining its parallels with the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.
Beethoven had a particular affection for this work that he referred to as "my little symphony". The first performance though, given in Vienna on 27 February 1814, was received with indifference by the public. It was generally held that it was less successful than the Seventh Symphony (that had been composed in the same year), a view that irritated Beethoven who responded, "That's because it's so much better."
Many have detected in the Eighth Symphony "a mood of joyous acceptance of life and the world" (Ernest Newman) and a sense that it "transports us into a sphere of laughter, play, and the exuberant release of bound energy" (Solomon). There is some evidence though that the Symphony was written in the aftermath of one of the most profound disappointments in the composer's life. During 1812 Beethoven had been deeply in love with the woman who has become known to posterity as his "Immortal Beloved". We do not know with any certainty whom this was, but the collapse of all his hopes, somewhere in the summer of that year, led of a final renunciation of marriage and an acceptance of being forever alone. Much of the Eighth Symphony was finalised in the months following this and it was completed in Linz during October 1812. The year that followed (1813) was to be, by all accounts, perhaps the most despondent of his life.
The Symphony is in four movements. Its sense of compression can be felt in the terse energy with which the opening theme of the first movement is released (Allegro vivace e con brio). The graceful secondary theme makes only a brief appearance before this material undergoes a development of considerable energy and fury, before returning to the initial idea. Something of the Symphony's vigour is due to the manner with which Beethoven dispenses with a slow movement, replacing it, instead, with a perky Allegretto scherzando. A delicate theme on the violins opens the movement, set against a gentle "tick-tock" figure in the woodwind. Beethoven brings to the music an almost Haydnesque humour with its occasional loud interjections and the mock-Italian operatic abrupt ending. For many years it was claimed that the "tick-tock" opening was a light-hearted "send-up" of the newly invented metronome, which Beethoven was the first great composer to use, though recent research has regrettably brought this charming story into doubt.
The third movement (Tempo di Menuetto) is the only minuet that Beethoven was ever to insert into any of his symphonies. Tovey described its opening as a "smooth and old-world flow of gallant tune" and its central section is a warm homely melody for the two horns. The finale (Allegro vivace) was for many years noted for the very fast metronome marking that Beethoven gives it (semibreve = 84). It opens with a light fleeting theme that is only arrested by a strong interjection by the whole orchestra, far removed from its true key (C sharp in F major). Now the full orchestra takes up the theme with a heavy breathless exuberance, which is only alleviated by the serene assurance of the secondary theme. Yet despite all the various surprises, rhetorical pauses, contrasts between loud and soft that give this movement its endless fascination, it never once loses the supreme electrical charge that carries the music forward to its emphatic conclusion.