Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Beethoven: Symphony No.8

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, in F, Op.93, was written in 1812---in its later months. Therefore, this and the Seventh (also written in 1812) form another set of "twin" Symphonies, as do the Fifth and Sixth. Again he adopts, in this Eighth, a lighter and somewhat simpler style, particularly in the first Movements; but despite its humor and good nature, it nowhere sacrifices its symphonic dignity. It is shorter, more concise, than its fellow-symphonies; for Beethoven was ever more deeply concerned with the quality than quantity, and here he has committed himself to brevity because he possessed the rare faculty of fitting the vessel to the contents, and had mastered the art of "much in little." This need not veil an implication that the extreme length of some of his Movements is a weakness; when a work is large in portent, a broad expanse of canvas is imperative: compare the first Movement of his Third, and of his Ninth Symphonies; also the First and Fourth Symphonies of Brahms; and the entire colossal C major Symphony of Schubert. The finale of his Eighth Symphony seems to be conceived in the wider sense, and is therefore of unusual length, especially in its extraordinary Coda.

Beethoven's Eighth has no Introduction---not a single preliminary note. The design of the first Movement is a concise sonata-allegro form. Beethoven experiments with the modulatory location of the subordinate Theme, in each of its two presentations: in the Exposition, its first Period is placed in D major (too high) and then restated in the "right" key, C major; and in the Recapitulation it is first set in B-flat (too low) and then, as before, restated in the "right" key, F major. This wonderfully sunny Movement abounds in Beethoven's pet device of Repetition, especially in the Development and Coda.

The second Movement stands for the slow one, but it is not the conventional lyric, sustained type. Its daintiness and genuine good humor fully compensate, however, for the expected change of mood. It is in reality a musical pleasantry, originating in Beethoven's interest in the metronome, and other mechanical contrivances, upon which Maelzel was at that time experimenting, and which Beethoven seems to have regarded with favor. The Movement---like the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony---begins with a 6-4 chord, but for a vastly different reason; there, it was portentous; here, it immediately reveals itself as a part of the musical jest. The design is amazingly compact, and represents a miniature sonatine-allegro form.

Beethoven heightens the delightfully genial, intimate of his "little" Eighth Symphony (as he fondly called it) by repressing his predilection for the Scherzo as third Movement, and returning to the leisurely, graceful Minuet of former days. Both divisions are surprisingly lovely.

The finale is anything but "little." In the sprightliness of its chief motive, the wonderful grace and richness of its subordinate Theme, its strong contrasts, and the marvelous formation of its Development and of its unusually long Coda, this Finale ranks very high among the most imposing of the great master's orchestral creations. There are strokes of humor in the Movement that are worthy of special mention. One is the sudden, explosive, wholly unanticipated c# in the seventeenth measure. Theoretically it is d-flat, the lowered or minor sixth scale-step of the key---the same harmonic interval as the d-flat in the thirtieth measure. But to Beethoven's keen musical discrimination there is a difference between c# and d-flat, and it was c#, and nothing else, that he wanted; for precisely therein lies the incongruity and genuine humor of the situation. Later in the sixth Section of the Coda, he gives it first the correct notation, d-flat, and then changes it to a legitimate c#. The other bit of drollery is his use of the drums (tuned in the tonic octave instead of the usual tonic and dominant), twice with the bassoon alone, ostensibly as solo, and again, beginning thirty-four measures before the end, as accompaniment to the wood-wind and then to the violins, until the full orchestra masses itself together.

It is further noteworthy that precisely the same experiments with the modulatory location of the subordinate Theme take place here, as in the first Movement: the first Period is placed in a remote key, and then restated in the "right" key. This occurs likewise in the Recapitulation.

Among the Sections of the Coda (whose contents, it will be borne in mind are wholly optional) there is nearly complete reappearance of the principal Theme, and also of the subordinate one, in their proper keys. This is misleading (and actually hilarious for the listener attentatively trying to discern the form), but no one will question Beethoven's musical judgment.

One last observation on this "little," "fun" Symphony: The resemblance of the principal motive in the Finale to the second Codetta of the first Movement may be an accidental coincidence, though foremost among Beethoven's salient qualities are his concentration and unfailing logic.


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