1812: Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F major

SUNDAY, October 25, 2020 – 4:33 PM

Symphony No. 8 in F major, age 41

Beethoven called it “my little Symphony in F,” distinguishing it from his longer 6th symphony, also in F. It is cheerful, with many accented notes and the usual extreme dynamics typical in Beethoven. Various passages seem like musical jokes, so there is a great deal of humor.

  • 0:18 I. Allegro vivace e con brio – F major: The 1st movement is in fast 3/4 time. 3/4 can be a waltz, a minuet, a scherzo and so on, so we go by feel and mood deciding what it is. In this case the speed is awfully fast for a waltz, but most of all it doesn’t sound like a scherzo. There are the usual sudden and loud accents. It actually sounds more like 6/8, but fast so that we hear two beats. So we are unlikely to hear a scherzo, and it’s way too fast for a minuet. This could not be anything else but something by Beethoven, but he also channeled Haydn. The much older Haydn was alive until 1809. He lived to age 77, and in that time living to such an advanced age was very unusual.As always really interesting things happen in the development section before everything goes back to the recap, which then comes in fff, which for Beethoven is unusual. It all ends very softly and playfully, something really more typical of Mozart than Beethoven, and it makes a nice change in style. About 11 minutes.
  • 11:22 II. Allegretto scherzando – Bb major: Some say that this movement is all a playful joke about the metronome, which had recently been improved by Beethoven’s friend, Johann Maelzel. It also could have been inspired Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, his 101st. The metronome-like parody starts at the very beginning of the movement. About 4 minutes
  • 15:35 III. Tempo di menuetto (tempo of a little minuet – F major: This is a true minuet in tempo, something Beethoven did not do in the rest of his symphonies. The style is not close to its 18th-century models because of the heavy rhythms that keep the style close to those of the other movements. About 5 minutes.
  • 20:47 IV. Allegro vivace – F major: I have not heard it mentioned, but this last movement reminds me of Rossini. I don’t know anything else to say about this last movement except that it is both a huge amount of fun and also almost a tribute to Haydn. About 8 minutes

Gardiner:

Of course it’s immediately flat because the pitch of lower instruments is lower, and when I go from modern recordings to these I always feel a strange lurch getting used to the new pitch level. I would think this would fry the minds of people with perfect pitch. But strangely I don’t feel like it’s lower after about a minute, and then the sound is very clear, and voices are extremely clean. You get knife-like attacks and accents, and I think Gardiner is the best at it, over all. So I really like this recording and this performance. It’s like another view. I would say he’s at his absolutely best in this symphony.

Instrumentation…

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in Bb, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F
  • timpani
  • strings

This is a small orchestra for Beethoven. It’s leaner and more focused, more like we’ve come to expect from Haydn and Mozart. So this symphony works especially well with smaller ensembles.

Composition and premiere…

He began the 8th in the summer of 1812 right after he completed the 7th symphony. He was 41 years old. 1812 was a very difficult time in his life, but you can’t tell it at all from this symphony.

Without dedication…

This symphony, for some reason, was not dedicated to a patron and was not commissioned.

Premiere…

It was on 27 February 1814, at a concert in the Redoutensaal in Vienna, the same place that the 7th symphony had been premiered two months earlier. Beethoven was nearly deaf at the time. Although he led the premiere, supposedly:

“the orchestra largely ignored his ungainly gestures and followed the principal violinist instead.”

Less popular…

Supposedly Carl Czerny, his pupil, asked why the 8th was less popular than the 7th. Beethoven is said to have replied:

“because the Eighth is so much better.”

It’s pretty obvious that this was not true, nor do I believe that Beethoven thought so. He was very irritated that it was not more popular, and it remains one of his least popular symphonies. But today, “less popular” is a relative term for Beethoven. His least popular symphony today is still very popular compared to the music of everyone else.

Little applause…

A critic wrote that:

“the applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short—as the Italians say—it did not create a furor.”

In modern terms, it bombed in comparison to his other symphonies. But as so often is the case, time and popular opinion reversed lack of fame and appreciation.

 

 

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