Beethoven symphonies

SUNDAY, March 1, 2020

The numbers are right for timing…

Sometimes opus numbers are off quite a bit regarding chronology. For instance, the first two Beethoven piano concertos are reversed. Number two is really number one because the second was published before first. But for the symphonies the opus numbers and dates of composition match up pretty well.

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, (1795-1801) – age 24-30

It’s about 24 and a half minutes long. Beethoven started parts of this while he was only 24 years old. Mozart by that time was dead for around four years. Beethoven was probably mostly aware of most of Haydn’s symphonies. But even though Haydn lived until 1809, the last symphony he wrote is listed as having been written around 1795, six years before Beethoven presented his first symphony. The connection between early Beethoven and the much older Haydn is very obvious. You can also compare this 1st symphony with the  Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, his last, which appeared around 1788.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800 and 1802) – age 29-31

It’s about 33 minutes long. Note the overlap in time between composition of the 1st and 2nd symphonies. The 2nd one was written at almost the same time, but the 1st will sound like a younger work because the ideas go much farther back. The first two symphonies are almost universally described as “Haydnesque”. But Beethoven’s stamp is all over both.

Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, Op. 55, (Eroica) (1802–1804) – age 31-33

It’s about 45 minutes long. After the 1st and 2rd symphony, in the 3rd Beethoven went from much of the style of Haydn to growing into his own style, and this is the first of his “middle” period.

Symphony No. 4 in Bb major, Op. 60 (1806) – age 35

It’s about 32 minutes long. The 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies overlap. It is impossible to know for certain which of them was written first or exactly when he worked on each of these three symphonies. I have always thought of the 4th as a less important symphony, but I’ve been very wrong. It is irrepressibly optimistic with boundless energy.  It may in fact be most like the 7th symphony because of energy and never-ending feeling rhythmic intensity. But the 2nd movement is very similar in mood to the 2nd movement of the 6th symphony, the Pastoral.

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – (1804 – 1808) – age 34-38

It’s about 33 minutes long, surprisingly short. This was not the most famous or popular symphony in Beethoven’s era, but it was always at least quite popular. Today the “fate” theme to the 1st movement is one of the most instantly recognized musical ideas in the history of music.

Symphony No. 6 in F major (Pastoral), Op. 68, (1802 – 1808) – age 31-37

It’s about 44 minutes long. I will forever link magical animated creatures to this, and the reason is Disney. Was it so popular without Disney? I don’t think so. Disney make it go viral, and since then it has never faded in popularity.

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-1812) – age 40-41

It’s about 39 minutes long. This is sometimes referred to as “the symphony of the dance” because of the energy and the incredibly strong rhythms. The 2nd movement was popular immediately and has remained so. It is a miracle of creativity and form.

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 – (1812-1814) – age 41-43

It’s only 24 minutes long, the shortest of all the symphonies. Beethoven said this one was better than his 7th symphony. I think that was pure stubbornness because it was less popular than the 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies. He was angry that it was largely ignored. He probably worked on it at the same time as the 7th symphony.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, (1822-1824) – age 51-53

It’s at least an hour long. The last movement alone is almost as long as his 8th Symphony. There was a large gap of around 10 years between the 8th and 9th symphonies. Many people argue a great deal about how deaf Beethoven was at this and that point in his life, but past the age of 50 he was too deaf to hear thunderous applause at the end of the music. The “9th” is so iconic that the moment you say “9th Symphony” or “Choral Symphony”, everyone knows it is this symphony. It has now been extremely popular for almost 200 years.


1 thought on “Beethoven symphonies

  1. I truly love Beethoven’s music. Every single song he makes is perfectly attuned to what he was going for when he made it and is just masterfully written.

Leave a Reply