MONDAY, June 8, 2020
(It seems impossible, but I wrote all this at the end of February, before Covid 19 closed down the US and much of the world. Originally I linked to Gardiner, but I put in Bernstein too today. I was looking for a modern recording with the kind of energy Gardiner played with. Original instruments had a very clean sound and a ton of energy, so I may prefer that sound in the fast movements, or at least it is competitive. But in the 2nd movement, the slow movement, that older “period” sound seems to me to be “scratchy”, and always hurried The original instruments to my ear can’t sustain as well, and the almost total lack of vibrato sounds at times almost clinical. This Bernstein recording is from a time when the New York Philharmonic was on fire, and to me it sounds just a vital and fresh as any more recent recording, including those with “period” instruments. I would suggest listening to each movement twice to hear the contrast between the old and the new.)
(The above link is brilliantly written and worth reading from beginning to end.)
This symphony is in four movements and was dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky. Beethoven wrote the Second Symphony without a standard minuet; instead, a scherzo took its place The scherzo and the finale are filled with musical jokes, which shocked many critics of his time.
One Viennese critic for the Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World) famously wrote of the Symphony that it was:
“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”
I will never lose an opportunity to point out what idiots critics are, nor to point out that such critics are just as common now as then. This is, of course, a great symphony, and it may be the most pure fun of all of them. It is full of jokes and pranks that even a child would get, and the best musicians on the planet love them all. So of course this Viennese critic thought it was awful. How typical! I have much more respect for buzzards and vultures than for most critics.
However, there are exceptions, and here is just a bit of what Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) wrote, although it is fair to point out that he was not born at the time this symphony was first heard.
In this Symphony everything is noble, energetic, proud. The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner.er you can see that he was right. And this was only about the first movement.
If you read his whole review, you will see that Berlioz nailed it.
Going deaf, and he knew it…
Beethoven’s mostly wrote this symphony in 1802, but he started it as much as two years earlier, and it was then that he realized he was in serious trouble. There have been countless guesses about why he started to lose his hearing, but for the greatest composer of his time – and some think the greatest composer who ever lived – this was just devastating.
Here is what he wrote about this time:
“…that jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a nasty spoke in my wheel; and it amounts to this, that for the past three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker.”
There is more, and a lot of this I’m getting from the above link, which you really should read. This is about his social life:
“I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.”
Then his professional worries:
“… if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?”
He wrote to his brother, contemplating suicide:
“I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”
I don’t know about you, but reading that is like a hard punch to the gut. If he had killed himself then, he would have died at the same age as Schubert and four years younger than Mozart.
“This Symphony is smiling throughout…”
Yet at the same time Beethoven was writing it, he wrestled with incredible depression and almost gave up his life. Out of total despair came this amazing symphony that just explodes with energy and has so much humor you can’t help but smiling with him as you listen.
The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in D, E and A, 2 trumpets in D (first, third and fourth movements only), timpani (first, third and fourth movements only) and strings.
I. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio – D major…
It is about 12 minutes long. Adagio molto means very slow, and allegro con brio means fast and with brilliance. It starts in D major. Starting with a slow introduction was a very new idea. I’ve read a number of commentaries about this, but again here is Berlioz, whom I quoted earlier. This is what happens when a critic happens to also be one of the greatest composers who has ever lived:
“The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner. The song is of a touching solemnity, and it at once commands respect and puts the hearer in an emotional mood. The rhythm is already bolder, the instrumentation is richer, more sonorous, more varied. An Allegro con brio of enchanting dash is joined to this admirable introduction. The fast motive which begins the theme, given at first to the violas and cellos in unison, is taken up again in an isolated form, to establish either progressions in a crescendo or imitative passages between wind instruments and the strings. All these forms have a new and animated physiognomy. A melody enters, the first section of which is played by the clarinets, horns, and bassoons. It is completed by the full orchestra, and the manly energy is enhanced by the happy choice of accompanying chords.”
II. Larghetto – A major…
This movement is about ten and a half minutes long when played quickly and a good deal longer when it is played more thoughtfully.I moves to what is called the sub-dominant key. Here is Berlioz again:
“[The second-movement Larghetto] is not treated after the manner of that of the First Symphony: it is not composed of a theme worked out in canonic imitations, but it is a pure and simple song, which is first stated sweetly by the strings, and then embroidered with a rare elegance by means of light and fluent figures whose character is never far removed from the sentiment of tenderness which forms the distinctive character of the principal idea. It is a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure which is scarcely shadowed by a few melancholy accents.”
III. Scherzo Allegro – Trio -D major…
The third movement moves back to D major and is about four and a half minutes long. I planned to write about each movement, but I would be competing with Berlioz, and his words are just too good:
“The Scherzo is as frankly gay in its fantastic capriciousness as the previous movement has been wholly and serenely happy; for this symphony is smiling throughout; the warlike bursts of the first Allegro are entirely free from violence; there is only the youthful ardor of the noble heart in which the most beautiful illusions of life are preserved untainted. The composer still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies! Hearing these various instruments disputing over fragments of a theme which no one of them plays in its entirety, hearing each fragment thus colored with a thousand nuances as it passes from one to the other, it is as though you were watching the fairy sports of Oberon’s graceful spirits.”
IV. Allegro molto – D major…
The last movement is about ten and a half minutes long.
Once again Berlioz:
“The finale [Allegro molto] is of like genius. It is a second scherzo in duple meter, and its playfulness has perhaps something still more delicate, more piquant.”
But this time there is more to the story. Musicologist Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music describes the highly unusual opening motif as a hiccup, belch or flatulence followed by a groan of pain. I think his idea is mostly his imagination, but it’s a amusing idea because this last movement is just plain funny. According to Greenberg:
“Beethoven’s gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress – like the fall of 1802 – were legendary. … It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it. Otherwise, how could such an interpretation become common coin? And common coin it is.”
Now, maybe you buy that, and maybe you don’t, but something funny is going on for sure, and it’s part of why people at the time thought this symphony was bizarre. Think of how repressed Europeans were at the beginning of the 1800s. It’s likely that all this exaggerated fun was just too much for those people.