Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

I have to say that one of my favorite things about this excursion through all the Beethoven symphonies is exploring the even-numbered ones. It's like finding an extra chocolate bar you didn't know you had! I was having a rehearsal with a good friend of mine on Sunday, a violist and violinist, and asked her what she thought of the Symphony No. 4. She has played in orchestras her whole life and could not recall if she had ever played this symphony! I don't think I had ever even listened to it before doing the post. Amazing!

So now we come to the last even-numbered Beethoven symphony: No. 8. This was written immediately after the Symphony No. 7. Beethoven had a special fondness for the 8th Symphony and told his student Carl Czerny that the 8th Symphony was less popular than the 7th because it "is so much better." The symphony has had a number of significant admirers including George Bernard Shaw who was a famous music critic as well as a playwright. Another admirer was none other than Igor Stravinsky who particularly admired the third movement for its "incomparable instrumental thought". Tchaikovsky thought the last movement was one of Beethoven's great masterpieces.

All this might seem a bit puzzling as in our time we exalt the 9th Symphony to the skies while barely admitting the 8th exists. But this is a remarkable symphony. Beethoven is more or less inventing neo-classicism a hundred years early. What Stravinsky was up to in the 1920s, a kind of re-imagining of the lightness, clarity and elegance of 18th century music, Beethoven had already done in the Symphony No. 8 and the last string quartet, op. 135, also in F major. The trio to the minuet, that Stravinsky so admired, may have been one of the inspirations for his Octet and Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

The obstacle for our appreciation of the Symphony No. 8 is very likely an aesthetic prejudice that we have learned from other pieces of Beethoven. His aesthetic range was so wide, as was Stravinsky's, that it is hard for us to reconcile the hard-charging drama of the 5th Symphony with the playful elegance of the 8th Symphony. Here is how it begins:

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The choice of 3/4 time signature gives the movement a waltz-like lilt, as does the inverted turn figure in the theme. I'm one for seeing a lot in the basic character of the initial theme--though of course, Beethoven, and others, likes to deceive the listener sometimes, especially if there is an introduction. But here, he launches right into the movement and the initial mood is not deceptive. Note how the first four measures are answered with a fluid phrase in the winds. This is also characteristic of this movement and the symphony as a whole.

In the "slow" movement which comes next, it is as if Beethoven is trying to compose against every expectation of a slow movement. First of all, the tempo is allegretto scherzando, a moderate rather than slow tempo. Then the movement has a mechanical kind of feel to it due to the constant ticking of the accompaniment. This movement is thought by some to be a parody of the recently invented metronome.  Then there are the ubiquitous staccato notes which also go against the grain of a typical slow movement which is supposed to be slow, flowing and sentimental. This movement, again, has a kind of artificial, wry, neo-classical feel to it. Here is the opening:

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And now the third movement: a minuet and trio, which by this point in the early 19th century is nearly an archaic dance. Here is part of the second half of the trio, whose orchestration Stravinsky so admired:

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The last movement is the weightiest of the symphony with an intense rhythmic figure that begins with repeated triplets that turn into little turnlet eighths. Here is how that looks at the beginning of the movement:

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This figure, which we see in the violins in the above example, has some real rhythmic impetus. There is a harmonically striking effect in the coda where a D flat is turned into a C# which interrupts the theme and is hammered insistently until its function is revealed as the dominant of F# minor, which leads to an episode in D major, hammered down into D minor, the relative minor of F, which gets us back into the right key. Here is that passage:

This really is an amazing symphony, though it is never going to have the widespread fame of the Symphony No. 9, whose aesthetic virtues are so much more likely to appeal to the majority of listeners.

Here is a lovely performance with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the 2012 Proms. Here is a guide to where each movement begins:

00:05 1 - Allegro vivace e con brio
10:12 2 - Allegretto scherzando
14:23 3 - Tempo di Menuetto
19:35 4 - Allegro vivace


Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting, especially the last movement. I had no idea it has a kind of neoclassical feel to it. Speaking of neoclassicism I think the whole neo terminology is confusing. Lets say a piece is composed today which obviously builds upon an older style but maybe with more updated harmony etc. For example a sarabande, which is from the reneissance but for the sake of simplicity can be referred to as a baroque dance (I guess). Would it be better to call it neoclassical or neobaroque? What if a piece is composed which has an obviously romantic style or a piece that is modern but in older modernist style like impressionism? Neoromantic? Neomodern? Or is it stil neoclassical? Basically, does neoclassical cover it all or should pieces be referred to by the period they are based on? Maybe it's simplier (although probably more confusing) to call pieces baroque, classical, romantic, modern but ofc could be easily confused with the time period.

Anyways, I personally think the whole neo thing is silly, at least today. Sure it's easier to categorize things with a broad terminology (such as romantic or modern) but for composers that is probably just limiting.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I need to hasten to say that my characterizing this symphony as "neoclassical" is hardly the orthodox view! It is my personal opinion, which the discussion in the post is intended to support. Beethoven had, among other things, two interesting tendencies: a 'progressive' one that was always searching for new and more intense expression (example from the late quartets, the op 130 in B flat) and a retrospective one that turned back to the classical elegance of Haydn and Mozart (example from the late quartets, op 135 in F major).

The term "neoclassical" was used to describe a trend in 20th century music that revived some aesthetic principles of music from the classical period and earlier. See the Wikipedia article for a pretty good overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassicism_(music)

What I am doing is simply pointing out that composers have often looked back in their music instead of forward. There are examples in Bach who sometimes wrote very archaic-sounding fugues.

Rickard Dahl said...

Yeah I know about the neoclassical period. Plenty about it in The Oxford History of Western Music. I was mainly wondering what you would call a piece in an older style written nowadays. You have a good point about composers both looking forward and back.
There's alot to look back to nowadays.

Bryan Townsend said...

Like most composers, I have a problem with applying historical categories to my own work--and the work of other current composers. This is the "what kind of music do you write" problem that I have written about before. Here is that post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/04/what-kind-of-music-do-you-write.html

The term "neoclassical" has inspired a bit of controversy as well. I suspect that is because it was against the ideology of modernism to be doing anything so reactionary as using historical styles. Hence, the accusation that neoclassicism was somehow fascist!

I discussed this whole progressive vs conservative issue in this post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2011/07/conservatism-vs-progressivism.html

Shantanu said...

This symphony is a masterpiece - it could not have been achieved by anybody except the great Beethoven. It's a lesson in how to write economically. And even though it is mostly good humoured, there are stormy passages in the first movement. There is something about Beethoven's late works which suggests he was trying to outdo and seal the Classical style once and for all. There is a throwback to more upright devices, as opposed to the free experiment of Romanticism. Thus you are very right in your reading of this symphony as being 'neo-classical' in a way. It wasn't the end of the Classical form as composers even in the 20th century made 'neo-classical' music - but it was certainly the end of the Classical era for Beethoven. He was wrapping up, and what a finish it was!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you captured the idea of this symphony very well. He was trying to sum up the classical style--that is probably a better way to put it than saying it is "neo-classical".

Jasmine said...

Thank you for this. I heard this on the radio today and was intrigued to find out more about his Symphony No 8.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, Jasmine. And welcome to The Music Salon!