Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Checking in with the Symphony Guide

If you read the Music Salon regularly you know that I have been following Tom Service's Symphony Guide over at the Guardian pretty regularly. Yesterday's installment is one of the best so far. Tom takes on the Symphony No. 8 of Beethoven and it is a brilliant choice. As I discovered in my survey of all the Beethoven symphonies last summer, the Eighth is a fascinating and underestimated work. Here is my post. And here is a link to Tom's article. Here is how the article starts:
One of the most important things about Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is that it puts a definitive kibosh on the idea of a symbiotic relationship between a composer's biography and their music. In the summer of 1812 when Beethoven was obsessively working on this piece, he wrote the most infamous letter of his life, to his mysterious "Immortal Beloved". The pain-wracked and heartbreaking sentimentality of that letter, with its doomed love and self-pitying prostrations, finds absolutely no corollary in the fabric of the Eighth Symphony, which is the most ebulliently experimental symphony that Beethoven composed – and therefore, quite possibly the most ebulliently experimental symphony in the canon.
Right away you know I am going to like it because he attacks the notion that symphonies are autobiographical. Later on he points out the Haydnesque aspects of the piece. But I would have to disagree that this is the most "ebulliently experimental symphony in the canon". If I were making a list, there are about five by Haydn that I would put first. My favorite part of the article is this one, where he hits the nail exactly on the head:
this symphony is "Haydnesque", an adjective often applied to it, but usually in a way that manages to patronise both Haydn and Beethoven, as if Haydn was only capable of comic symphonic entertainment, and as if the Eighth Symphony was somehow a lesser thing than the supposed titans that surround it – which it decidedly isn't.
This reminds me of a post I put up fairly recently that gets into exactly this kind of aesthetic error. Here it is.

Let's end by listening to the Symphony No. 8 of Beethoven, a hugely underrated work. Here is Barenboim conducting his young band at the Proms in 2012:

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