Thursday, July 18, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2

The Second Symphony of Beethoven is probably the least known, which is too bad. It is a very fine symphony--if he had not written seven more, it would probably be very famous. But it is quite overshadowed by the Third Symphony and all the others that followed.

The Second Symphony is substantial by 18th century standards taking, depending on the repeats, about half an hour in performance. There are four movements:

  1. Adagio molto, 3/4 – Allegro con brio, 4/4
  2. Larghetto, 3/8 in A major
  3. Scherzo: Allegro, 3/4
  4. Allegro molto, 2/2

The Adagio introduction is particularly elaborate, much longer than the one to the First Symphony. Here is the first page:

One of the things that particularly stands out about this adagio as being characteristic of Beethoven is the rhythmic complexity. He often layers different subdivisions on top of one another or in close proximity:

Click to enlarge
Here there are the triplet sixteenths in the accompaniment contrasted with syncopated eighth notes and thirty-second notes. The allegro, when it arrives twelve pages later, is energetic with particularly strong rhythmic impetus:

Note the sfs (subito forte meaning "suddenly loud") that give a punch to the theme, already with a lot of rhythmic energy from the sixteenth-note upbeats and offbeats.

The second movement, a larghetto in the dominant, features the kind of delicate filigree that Beethoven will make use of in so many slow movements and sets of variations in the future:

Click to enlarge

One of the things that Beethoven particularly delighted in throughout his career was rollicking dance movements. Haydn had already pepped up the dignified minuet by turning it into what he called a "scherzo" in a much faster tempo. "Scherzo" means "joke" in Italian and the term dates back into the early 17th century, but it was Haydn's use of the word in his String Quartets op. 33 (1781) that directly inspired Beethoven. Here is the first page of the scherzo from the Second Symphony:

This is a "one in the bar" tempo, meaning that each measure is a single beat so what we actually get is a hypermeter, or a meter that extends over more than one measure. Incidentally, this is the solution to the mystery of why, in some classical compositions, the last measure of the piece is a rest: it is needed to complete the group of measures making up the hypermeter. Here, for example, one could postulate a hypermeter of four measures. Notice that every other measure is an echo.

The last movement, allegro molto, begins with this outrageous outburst:

Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory gives us an example of musicological overreach when he describes this as a hiccup, belch or flatulence followed by a groan of pain. He says,
Beethoven's gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress – like the fall of 1802 – were legendary. ... It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it. Otherwise, how could such an interpretation become common coin? And common coin it is.
Hmm, well perhaps. On the other hand, other writers have pointed out that this symphony, of which Berlioz says "everything in this symphony smiles," was written at about the same time as  Beethoven was undergoing intense personal stresses, not the least of which were the first signs of his impending deafness. One can only imagine how keenly this would affect a young composer in his early 30s! But none of this appears in the symphony, which as Berlioz notes, is full of joy.

Here is a splendid performance from the 2012 Proms conducted by Daniel Barenboim:


Andy Olson said...

I had always interpreted SF as another abbreviation for sforzando, not subito forte. The different is important, one being primarily about attack and the other being more about sustained dynamic.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Andy,

That's an interesting thought. I often find Charles Rosen's book on the piano sonatas to be a very useful guide to Beethoven's notational conventions, but I just looked and he has no comments on "sf". So I looked around and found one mention that, just as you say, "sf" is also an abbreviation for "sfz". However in other places, like here: it shows that "sf" stands for "subito forte" as I said. So, looks like an ambiguity. As to how important the difference is, I suspect that most performers seeing "sf" would play it with a louder attack whether they thought it stood for "subito forte" or "sforzando".

Rickard Dahl said...

Berlioz's description is right on spot. It is a indeed a very smiling symphony (especially the 3rd and 4th movements). It's punchy (filled with sf, fp etc.), very rhythmtically driving, playful and lively. My top 3 favorite Beethoven symphonies are the 9th, 7th and 6th. I suppose I prefer his happier symphonies.

Bryan Townsend said...

All his symphonies tend to have lots of energy, but in some cases, like the 5th, it is rather dark. Do you really find the 9th to be a "happy symphony"?

Rickard Dahl said...

Not really. It's probably a case of "struggle and victory". Starting in darkness, ending in (an ode to) joy. Maybe the joy is there all along but it's overshadowed by something darker.

Either way another unpopular preference: I prefer the 1st and 2nd movements.

Some just listen to Ode to Joy and miss out on the other wonderful movements.

Bryan Townsend said...

The first movement of the Symphony No. 9 is one of my very favorite movements.

Rickard Dahl said...

I especially love the intro to the 9th symphony, one of the best intros I've heard. I think of a sunrise or some kind of new beginning when hearing it.

Bryan Townsend said...

The bare fifths opening to the 9th is justly famous, but there are predecessors, such as the opening of Haydn's Creation.