Beethoven’s symphonies

ludwig van beethoven

For the classical music repertoire, I’m an ardent fan of Johann Strauss II’s music but when I tire of waltzes and polkas, I regularly tune in to Beethoven.

I’m not exactly mad about Beethoven to the extent of going online with the burning desire to know his favourite food, his exact number and location of lodgings in Vienna, looking up on debates as to who precisely was the ‘Immortal Beloved’, or simply listening to his works everyday. He certainly ranks, though, as one of the greatest composers of all time for the sheer power and inventiveness present in his masterworks.

His concerti for piano (five in all) and this Violin Concerto are monumental compositions in their own right, particularly for those 1st movements which regularly top out a shade over twenty minutes in performance length. The famous piano sonatas which bear nicknames such as the ‘Pathétique’, ‘Waldstein’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Appassionata’ are also perfect for soul-searching moments without the weighty sounds of the orchestra whereas his chamberworks are ideal for the lazy Sunday afternoons.

But his symphonies are probably his greatest works of all. The golden chain of nine symphonies culminating from the classical-era sounding Symphony no. 1 in C major, Op. 21 to the near-perfect Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 which rounded up his symphonic repertoire with a choral finale.

The following is my take on each of the symphonies and while I could say that I love them all, there is one symphony which I think triumphs over the remaining eight.

 

Symphony no. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1801)

josef haydn

I did not put Josef Haydn’s portrait up there to mock Beethoven’s work  – the work may have been a polite homage to his teacher (it is still a classical-era symphony after all) but from the get-go, Beethoven lets up on the ‘wrong’ key of F major like a startling remark. It’s like Beethoven conveying a message to his teacher that these are the new sounds the world is going to listen to from then onwards. The somewhat pacy Andante second movement also contrasts with the gentle Andante movements that Haydn composed for his own works.

Overall, I quite like this C major work. It is a warm and pleasant composition that is almost completely devoid of unnecessary tension and drama. The length of the symphony is rather short (clocking in at approximately 25 minutes) but I don’t find this a problem.

I have the Decca recording featuring Pierre Monteux and the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing Symphonies no. 1,3, 6 and 8 in a sparkling two-disc set. I don’t have other recordings of the C major symphony so I can’t appraise as to which is the best but Monteux’s take is idiomatic and relaxed.

 

Symphony no.2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802)

beethovenhaus heiligenstadt

This is the house where Beethoven lived (located in the district of Heiligenstadt, Vienna) and the place where he probably penned most (if not all) of his 2nd symphony. Posterity was made to understand that during this period of his life, Beethoven was struggling with the onset of deafness which is not good news at all to any composer. During this time, Beethoven penned the Heiligenstadt Testament where his gloomy outlook on life was not allowed to permeate his sunny 2nd symphony.    

Beethoven_Heiligenstaedter_Testament 

In terms of beauty, this work is beyond compare even if judged alongside the efforts by Beethoven’s approximate contemporaries such as Josef Haydn, Franz Schubert or Johann Nepomuk Hummel. His optimistic first movement with the attention-seeking two hammered chords at the very beginning, the marvellously serene and reflective second movement is counter-balanced with the energetic Scherzo third movement and the rather bizarre fourth movement. I don’t think of this work as a two-part programme, given that the first two movements are rather lengthy but it was as if the latter two movements suddenly recaptured the joie de vivre that defied his increasing deafness.

I absolutely loved this symphony and was quite puzzled that most Beethoven lovers seemed to generally ignore this work. I’d listened to a few versions of this work and came away impressed with Herbert von Karajan’s recording on the Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Also, don’t sneeze at bargain-records producer, Alfred Scholz’s interpretation with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the Pilz label. Another commendable effort is by Gianandrea Noseda directing the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (which is paired with the 4th symphony on an issue of the BBC Music magazine). A regular performance of this symphony could be around 30 – 35 minutes.

 

Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ (1804)

napoleon-crossing the alps

I know, I quite simply have to put up this picture of Napoleon Bonaparte when the ‘Eroica Symphony’ comes to mind. The anecdote of how Beethoven initially thought of dedicating this great symphony to the Corsican (Beethoven was enthusiastic with the ideals of the French revolution, with Bonaparte championing these principles) and was subsequently so incensed with Bonaparte’s decision to be crowned as an Emperor of the French in 1804 that Beethoven struck out the dedication in his own inimitable manner, hardly needs retelling. Finally, the work was dedicated ‘to the memory of a great man’. When Napoleon died in exile in Saint-Helena, Beethoven was thought to have remarked that he wrote Napoleon’s funeral march (i.e. the 2nd movement) seventeen years before.

Personally, I do like this symphony as a whole but not the 2nd movement. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the other more heroic-sounding movements and I thought that it was definitely out of place. The first movement is also somewhat repetitious – the famous theme probably being varied in some form or another throughout with some other ideas which worked quite well. The boisterous Scherzo movement is also brilliant with the solo horn part causing Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries some misunderstanding during the symphony’s first rehearsal. The last movement had its main theme culled from his earlier ballet ‘the Creatures of Prometheus’ written in 1800. This is also the first time that Beethoven’s other gift for long-windedness becomes obvious here. Just listen to the finale part of the last movement through and let me know what you think.  

The ‘Eroica’ is also the first Beethoven symphony I’ve ever listened in entirety but it’s not my clear favourite.

I’m divided in opinion as to which recordings that you should seek out for but I’d go for the South German Philharmonic’s version conducted by Henry Adolph which was featured on Classical Collection issue no. 36 with a recording of the ‘Leonore Overture no. 3’. If you really want a full-length recording (with all repeat instructions obeyed), you may try Riccardo Muti’s efforts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the EMI Classics label though I must warn you that the longer recording doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be enjoyable. A regular performance pans out to around 40 minutes.

 

Symphony no. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806)

prinz lichnowsky home

I think that this is the least-recorded of all the symphonies. How it suffered such a reputation I can’t quite figured out why – it had a compelling first movement, a rather strange second movement (which piques one’s curiosity sufficiently) and a delectable third movement. The fourth is ok as well. You’d rarely see this work bundled together with the other more ‘well-known’ symphonies on CD recordings and I got hold of one from the BBC Music magazine that comes with the 2nd symphony (see above).

The common observation that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies are more powerful compared to its even-numbered counterparts are clichéd. This symphony was opined by another great German composer, Robert Schumann as ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods’ in reference to the 4th symphony being sandwiched in between the heroic 3rd and the mighty 5th symphonies is a rather far-fetched observation to make. For all of its apparent lack of ‘power’, the 4th symphony makes up for in its unbridled optimism and fortitude. Perhaps it’s not as tuneful and melodic as his other symphonies (now I think I know why) but that shouldn’t put you off from giving it a listen. Gianandrea Noseda leads the BBC Philharmonic in a convincing performance of the 4th in an issue of the BBC Music magazine. Herbert von Karajan’s take with his faithful Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is also worth recommending. You could expect to spend around 30-35 minutes listening to an average-timed performance of this symphony.

 

Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808)

liberty leading the people

You’d have heard it before – it’s the famous opening theme of the first movement that defines what most people know (or claim to know) about Beethoven. Yet, while the first movement, the restless yet impressive Allegro con brio is well-known throughout the world, the other four movements are not nearly accorded the same recognition. The stately yet impatient second movement breaks free near the end with bottled-up passion; the brooding third movement Scherzo Allegro is sinister-sounding contrasted with a rather breezy trio section. Finally, you have the fourth movement to affirm the joy of all the movements. Again, Beethoven demonstrated his penchant for long-windedness in the fourth movement’s conclusion but this time, you would still forgive him as this symphony is as glorious as one could ever find in the classical repertoire.

It may not be the best Beethoven symphony in my book (at least on the whole) but it does invoke different moods and challenge the way you would listen to a regular symphony of that era, such is the unpredictability of the structure of the entire work. Then you’d realize why Beethoven stands out from the rest of his contemporaries and no one else comes remotely close.

A typical performance of the entire symphony would be approximately 30 – 35 minutes which is pretty much the benchmark established by Beethoven.

 

Symphony no. 6 in F major ‘Pastoral’, Op. 68 (1808) 

beethoven countryside

The ‘Pastoral’ is where Beethoven stamped his personal mark. Comprising of five movements instead of the usual four, each with its own individual titles –

(i) Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande ‘The awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside’ (Allegro ma non troppo);

(ii) Szene am Bach ‘Scene by the Brook’ (Andante molto mosso);

(iii) Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute ‘Merry gathering of the country folk’ (Allegro);

(iv) Gewitter, Sturm ‘Thunderstorms, storm’ (Allegro); and

(v) Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm ‘Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the Storm’ (Allegretto).

Its neatly structured programme ensured that its listeners are not confused by the symphony’s evocative and charming spirit. Indeed, it’s easy to listen to the meandering 2nd movement and admire the picture of Beethoven above relaxing by the stream, inspired by the sounds of nature (while not far away, a shepherdess tends to her herd).

Austrian countryside

But in the first movement, of which the first theme repeats itself quite a lot throughout, we are reminded of one of Beethoven’s dearest locales – the countryside and the genial moods that such place could invoke. The main theme also lent itself to an advertisement for butter in Malaysia many years ago where the consumers of the said butter suddenly found themselves ‘mooing’ their approval having consumed an open-faced sandwich spread with the dairy delight. 

Pieter_Bruegel_The_Peasant_Dance

The cheeky third movement is my favourite in this symphony. You could probably imagine the peasants were preparing for a wedding feast and much revelry was going on…only to be interrupted by the falling of rain and subsequent storm as illustrated in the fourth movement where timpani make their much-awaited appearance.

In the final contemplative movement, the shepherds sing a hymn of praise while the entire symphony reaches its satisfying conclusion with the noticeable absence of timpani yet again.

I’d recommend the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester version conducted by Kurt Masur under the Philips label. Under his direction, the lovely 2nd movement was given utmost gentle care that the completely relaxing atmosphere could literally put you to sleep. Pierre Monteux’s direction of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra of this symphony is no slouch either although I’d prefer the Leipzig orchestra’s rendition for this one.

 

Symphony no. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811) 

battle of hanau

This sublime symphony brims with so much melodic grace that Richard Wagner was moved to comment on this work as “apotheosis of the dance”. Beethoven’s maturity as a composer is far more evident in this work – rarely does he feel the need to repeat a main theme over and over again now to convince his listeners of his talent. This symphony was premiered in Vienna on 8 December 1813 at a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau together with the showpiece work ‘Wellington’s Victory’.

The first movement ebbs and flows but you won’t notice the craftsmanship until you fully indulge in the quieter moments of the first movements. Splendid. I’d empathize, though, with Carl Maria von Weber’s observation that Beethoven ‘was ripe for the madhouse’ with the chromatic bass line in the coda. It’s ok if you don’t know what Herr Weber was referring to; you’ll know it when you hear it.

The 2nd movement is also another recommended movement – measured in pace but typically impatient in approach, as if the pent-up emotions must find an outlet, and soon!

In the 3rd movement, I’m generally fine with this piece although I’d disagree with Thomas Beecham’s candid opinion that ‘it’s like a lot of yaks jumping about’. It’s just a little excitable at this point but nothing to get all upset about.

Finally, in the 4th movement, Beethoven unleashes a Bacchanalia upon us. This is probably the wildest movement yet penned by the great composer which invited comments that he was possibly drunk during its composition. I’ve read somewhere in a published source that there was a follow up reply on this comment – “Yes, Beethoven was drunk – drunk with genius.” Strangely, as frenzied as this movement may seem, it was an enjoyable ride throughout – overflowing with mirth and carefree spirits.

You could expect to spend at least 35 – 40 minutes listening to this symphony in its entirety. 

 

Symphony no. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812)

beethoven_vienna

Like a breath of fresh air, Beethoven’s brilliant Eighth symphony rejuvenates the entire symphonic cycle – from the enigmatic 1st movement to the melodic 2nd movement (which pokes fun at the metronome invented by his friend, Johann Mälzel) and to the boisterous minuet movement which is rounded up by the equally ebullient last movement. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to pick out any depressing passages in this good-natured and relaxing symphony.

I’d decide that the Eighth Symphony is Beethoven’s greatest, not necessarily for its brevity or brute force but for how masterful Beethoven has handled the symphonic form and how he could actually be economical with the overall structure of the classical symphony at that point of time; the entire work clocks in at less than thirty minutes, given the relatively lightweight second and third movements.

Ironically, when I first listened to this symphony in 1996, I didn’t like it very much back then. I thought that the outer two movements are rather banal, typically Beethoven in strength but lacking in melody. How wrong I was. When I gave the entire symphony my undivided attention in 2010, I was captivated by the counterpoint passage in the first movement, the disarmingly charming second movement (previously I didn’t like it that much) and the unique final movement which makes no pretensions of its length, as if affirming that there is no shame in keeping things short and simple. I’ve heard the minuet before earlier in 1995 and thought it was ok.

Herbert von Karajan leads the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (for Deutsche Grammophon) in an inspired performance of the Eighth Symphony. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester under the baton of Kurt Masur (for Philips Classics) also comes close although I felt that Masur’s rendition lacked the urgency of Karajan’s version. Pierre Monteux conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with great aplomb and is captured on a recording made by Decca Records.

 

Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824)

Beethoven_piano

This monumental symphony was often hailed as the best that Beethoven ever penned.

For its then unprecedented length and instrumentation, I’d tend to agree. But since I’ve given my vote to the preceding Eighth, I could only stress that the Ninth is perhaps the embodiment of Beethoven as a musician and as an inspired individual who struggled with his deafness but ultimately and successfully defeated other adversities strewn onto his path.

The tempestuous first movement was dark and stormy – almost as gloomy as Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (also in the same key). Beethoven opted for the lively and testy Scherzo to be placed as the second movement which allows the slow third movement to gradually lead to the much-anticipated fourth movement. I think much has been written of the famous choral finale and there are plenty of sources to appraise for yourselves.

Personally, I’m not really all for Beethoven’s Ninth. I just felt that the entire symphony is rather long and weary-sounding for large pockets of the work. Playing devil’s advocate, perhaps I’ve yet to obtain a decent performance of this symphony such that my opinion would be swayed in its favour. The only version I’ve had is the bargain-price recording from the Alfred Scholz catalog which isn’t top quality. I mean, the performance was quite good actually but not the sort of relenting and demanding performances usually prevalent in Karajan’s renditions or performances from other major orchestras. That is not to say that I totally don’t like the work – the choral finale is exquisite and uplifting and I recalled listening before to a performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra recorded on the Sony Music label (can’t remember who conducted the orchestra though) and came away rather awed by the entire last movement.

Until then, I do hope to be given a pleasant awakening as to the intriguing beauties of this symphony and would reserve further judgment until that day comes.

 

   

     

 

           

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