Ludwig Van Beethoven – Symphony No. 8, in F major, Opus 93
I. Allegro vivaice e con brio
II. Allegretto soherzando
III. Tempo di mnuetto
IV. Allegro vivace
Beethoven’s Eighth symphony is one of the shortest of the Nine, if not the shortest. For this reason it has been called the “little” symphony. But that is misleading, since “little” tends to confuse size with distinction. As a matter of fact the Eighth symphony was underestimated when it appeared–“Because it is so much better,” growled Beethoven.
Commonly it is believed that such and such a thing happens, that thereupon the composer, “inspired” by the event, sits down in a creative frenzy and pens a masterpiece. Now that has occurred. But more often the reverse is true. Composers produce music which has nothing to do with events. Why? Because music comes from a source deeper in ourselves than we know, and art is an escape from actuality. The conditions under which the Eighth symphony came into existence were in complete contrast to character. Beethoven, with customary unreasonableness, had quarreled with Mälzel, his good friend who was partly responsible for the symphony; he was profoundly de-pressed by the mortal illness and financial need of one of his brothers, while he now undertook to interfere with outrageous effrontery in the love affair of another.
This brother was Johann, a successful apothecary, whose smug life the composer despised. Johann had developed an affair, not precisely platonic, with a young woman officially his housekeeper. Beethoven, hearing of this, sped from Teplitz, where he had con-versed with Goethe, to Linz, where Johann lived, and promptly there was trouble. Johann received Ludwig hospitably, giving him pleasant rooms overlooking the Danube River. The composer went straight to the point. He demanded that Therese Obermeyer, said housekeeper, comely if not beautiful of person, be put out. Johann suggested, with a fair show of logic, that Ludwig mind his business. There was a violent, an unprintable row. Then Beethoven took the matter to the local authorities and the Bishop. He secured an order that the girl leave town. But the apothecary played to win. He up and married her. The bourgeois romance come to its bourgeois end, Beethoven left in a towering rage for Vienna, having precipitated a disaster in his brother’s life, and completed his symphony. He was now so deaf that when he conducted the orchestra he made a ludicrous figure, crouching almost to the ground for the musicians to play softly, leaping into the air for a climax, unable to hear the soft passages, and therefore sometimes losing his place in it was Johann who, having acquired a handsome property, called on his brother, leaving his card on which was inscribed Johann van Beethoven, Gutsbesitzer (land proprietor), which card Beethoven quickly returned, after writing on the back: Ludwig van Beethoven, Hirnbesitzer (brain proprietor) I the score. And from all these, and heaven knows what other confusions in his great and stormy soul, came the sunlight and laughter of the Eighth symphony.
Is there rage, frustration, discordant passion in the score? Not one particle. The symphony is sheer joy and releasethe laughter of a Titan who elected for the moment to make play with the stars and the planets. In no other work is Beethoven more completely and recklessly the master. The audacity and extravagance of his invention are without end, being subject, at the same time, to a supreme command of form and technic. The first phrase bursts without a preliminary chord or measure or rest from the orchestra, and that’s the soul of the man Beethoven, conversing with the wind and sky. I can see him as he often was, in a “raptus,” striding through street and field, muttering, shouting, singing, forging his music. The material of the movement does not seem so tremendous until it begins to grow upon you. All sorts of little scraps of sing-song are turned to Beethoven’s audacious purposes, which, throughout, are light-hearted, energetic, playful, and audacious in modulation.
The second movement of the symphony has a special connotation. It has to do with Johann Nepomuk Malzel and the instrument by which he achieved immortalitythat instrument which is the curse of the child’s-music hour, the metronome. In this movement is heard the ticking of the metronome, or rather of its immediate predecessor, Malzel’s musical chronometer.
The metronome ticked; the chronometer, a mechanism in which a “small lever set in motion by a toothed wheel,” caused “little blows on a wooden anvil,” must have tocked. Tick or tock, that monotonously regular beat was surely in Beethoven’s mind when he composed this famous movement, this jeu d’esprit, the Allegretto scherzando of the Eighth symphony. The effect reverses the conventional order of instrumentation, for the wind instruments instead of the strings carry the accompaniment and tick the measure. There was a night when Beethoven, Malzel and other intimates of the composer dined together. According to Schindler, sometimes inaccurate as a biographer, this dinner took place before Beethoven went to Linz to make trouble and compose his symphony. Malzel was then planning a trip to England. Beethoven was fond of writing facetious canons (the canon being a device of musical imitation, in which a given motive, intoned by a leading voice, is imitated, in turn, by the other voice-parts of the composition) and singing them. On the occasion in question Beethoven jotted down a canon to the text of farewell, “Ta-Ta-Ta, Lieber Malzel,” and the company sang the piece with gusto. This canon, as well as the beat of the musical chronometer, finds its way into the allegretto of the Eighth symphony. Some historians set the date of the dinner , later than that of the symphony. Be this as it may, dinner before symphony, symphony before. dinner, the movement is not to be dissociated from Malzel and his instrument and Beethoven in vein of sly humor.
Like the Seventh, this symphony is too light-footed and mercurial to have any slow movement: The third movement is a minuet; but notice how Beethoven’s virile spirit transforms the character of the polite dance-form of Haydn or Mozart. The first part of the minuet of the Eighth symphony has the sharp accent, the rude vigor and swing which only Beethoven could give it; but the song given the two horns and clarinets in the quieter contrasting section is divine. At the beginning of the minuet is heard a horn-call, Beethoven’s recollection, it is said, of the posthorn of the coach which drove him from Teplitz. Perhaps the last movement of the symphony was the most startling of all to Beethoven’s colleagues. To-day it seems that the veriest pedant could not resist applauding his antics. He roars with laughter, he shouts to the heavens, and every measure is an astonishment. Nowhere is he more unbuttoned, more abandoned, yet simple and transparent in style. But even Berlioz, a brilliant critic, a composer far ahead of his time, was puzzled by it. No one ‘wrote more penetratingly of Beethoven as a rule than he. Yet he is slightly apologetic about the Eighth symphony, especially its finale. “All this,” he says, “is very curious.” He stood too near the Titan who laughed. Sir George Grove, who came later than Berlioz, reserves his highest praise of the symphony for this movement. The Finale, however, is the great movementof the Symphony. It is pure Beethoven in his most individual and characteristic vein, full of those surprises and sudden unexpected effects, those mixtures of tragedy and comedy, not to say farce, which makes his music so true a mirror of human life, equal in his branch of art to the great plays of Shakespeare in his,and for the same reasons.” It is possible that some of the rhythmic combinations in this finalegroups of two notes against three, et cetera were taken to heart by Brahms, who loved this device. But even Brahms could not hope to write an Eighth symphony.