Although it seems unlikely given his fiery temperament and unsettled personal life that Beethoven’s existence was ever free from drama for any meaningful period of time, he really only went through two periods of acute personal crisis, both of which were to prompt huge changes in both Beethoven the man and Beethoven the musician.

The first of these crises was in the period during which his hearing first began to fail. It was at this time that Beethoven expressed his contemplation of suicide in the Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802 as a letter (or even suicide note) to his brothers Carl and Johann, but almost certainly intended for the eyes of posterity. Ultimately, his response to the overwhelming despair of the moment was his funny and high-spirited Second Symphony, the work which ushered in what we now call Beethoven’s “Middle Period”, a decade of almost superhuman productivity during which he nearly always had two or three future masterworks on his desk at the same time. During these years, Beethoven found a new, “heroic” voice in works like the Fifth and Third Symphonies and cultivated a new, more poetic side in works like the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony. And, in works like the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata, the Razumovsky String Quartets or the Emperor Piano Concerto, he seemed driven throughout these years to push the boundaries of scale, writing some of the longest and most complex pieces of instrumental music yet produced.

By 1812, when Beethoven completed the second of the two symphonies heard in this weekend’s concerts, he was already entering another period of crisis. The first signs of disruption came about a year before Beethoven set to work on his Seventh Symphony, with the appearance of his String Quartet in F minor, opus 95, the “Serioso” in 1810. After nearly a decade writing music of grandeur, lyricism and heroic drama, the “Serioso” strikes one as almost the work of a different pen. The whole quartet is shorter than the first movement of the Emperor Concerto, and it is wildly mercurial music, culminating not in a cathartic finale, but more of a black joke.

The “Serioso” was not yet the end of Beethoven’s middle period, but it was certainly a powerful sign that he had begun to question his whole way of working. 1811 saw Beethoven pulling back from the abyss as best he could, with his two major works of that year marking, in many ways, the culmination of the musical language of his middle period, the Archduke Piano Trio, opus 97, and the Seventh Symphony, opus 92. A year later, in 1812, came two works that were to point the way to the Beethoven of the final piano sonatas and the late string quartets: his Violin Sonata in G major, opus 96, and the Eighth Symphony, opus 93. The Violin Sonata revealed a new, ecstatic lyricism which Beethoven would explore in works like the Piano Sonatas opus 109 and 110 and the slow movements of his opus 130 and 132 String Quartets, while the Eighth Symphony is like a major-key mirror image of the “Serioso” Quartet; again, radically shorter than any of its immediate predecessors (it was the shortest symphony he had written since his First), and also unveiling a new, radical Classicism which he would further explore in works like his final String Quartet (also in F Major), opus 135.

When the Eighth Symphony was premiered alongside the Seventh at a concert in February 1814, the similarities between the two new works would have been more obvious to the audience than their differences. On the surface, both works are joyful, high-energy pieces for orchestras of identical size. At the time, the Seventh was universally seen as the better of the two works – it was more dramatic, more exciting and generally more satisfying than the Eighth. As it happens, the audience’s almost universal favourite work in those concerts was neither the Seventh nor the Eighth, but the nowadays almost-totally-derided “Battle Symphony”, Wellington’s Victory.

Nevertheless, the differences between the two symphonies are profound. The Seventh is a fitting culmination of the greatest decade in musical history, the last and most perfect manifestation of Beethoven at his physical and emotional midlife peak. Following the period of crisis leading up to the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven had found answers to the metaphysical questions that had nearly destroyed him, and, for ten years, he had expressed those answers in musical terms with a clarity of language possibly unequaled in human discourse.  The Eighth is the beginning of a long, and often painful, period of experimentation. By this time, Beethoven was becoming aware that he was facing new and often painful questions, and that it was time to begin the long and difficult search for new answers. The time was coming when the character of Beethoven as broad-shouldered hero would have to be retired, and it would take several years for the new Beethoven’s (mystic, martyr, saint, madman and court jester) to emerge

The premieres of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were in many ways the public zenith of the middle chapter of Beethoven’s life. Beethoven and his friends assembled the largest orchestra he’d ever had for any of his music, with 36 violins 14 violas, 12 cellos and 7 basses, and doubled wind. And, although the Eighth Symphony ended up somewhat in the shadow of Wellington’s Victory and the Seventh, the whole evening felt to many like a public acknowledgement of the importance Beethoven’s artistic life in Vienna.

Wagner famously called the Seventh Symphony the “apotheosis of the dance.” There is a thread going through much of Beethoven’s middle period of music which is built on the almost obsessive repetition of driving rhythmic cells, as in the first movement of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. In the Seventh Symphony, he maintains this obsessive approach throughout all four movements for the first time. If it’s not the dancing-est symphony ever written, it is certainly the most rhythmically propulsive.

The Seventh starts with a slow introduction. Such introductions are a common feature in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven had not written one since his Fourth Symphony. This was to be the longest and most complex introduction in any Beethoven symphony – depending on tempi, it can be as long as the entire second movement of the Eighth Symphony. It is both grand and evocative, full of bracing sonorities and captivating woodwind solos. The transition from the introduction into the main Vivace is one of the cleverest things Beethoven ever wrote. Here he gradually prunes the music of melody and harmony, leaving us with nothing but the note E, repeated over and over again in uncertainly varied rhythms. It creates a fantastic air of suspense, while also telling us, in no uncertain terms, that is going to be a symphony primarily about rhythm. Finally, after a bit of experimentation, Beethoven finds the rhythm he’s been looking for, the “Siciliano” or “Amsterdam” rhythm which will permeate the rest of the movement – initially just on E. What unfolds might be the most perfect movement in all the Beethoven symphonies, in which Beethoven somehow manages to make a Vivace, which is practically bursting with energy from the first note, grow and grow and grow in intensity and energy, until the final peroration in the horns brings the whole thing to an ecstatic close.

The audience in Vienna were so taken with the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that they burst into applause and demanded that it be repeated. What a pity such spontaneous displays of enthusiasm are no longer a part of concert life! It is often described as a ‘funeral march’, but it is not at all in the same mood as the actual Marcia Funebre from Beethoven’s Third Symphony. It’s not even really a slow movement, but is instead marked Allegretto (somewhat lively), and it is, like the first movement, pervaded by a single rhythm (you may recognise the rhythmic cell as the one in the children’s song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”). Although its mood may be more elusive than the Marcia Funebre, there is no denying that it is one of the most directly emotional movements in all the Beethoven symphonies.

From the beginning of his symphonic project, Beethoven had sought to differentiate himself from his predecessors, Mozart and Haydn. One way in which he did this was to jettison their use of the courtly “minuet” dance as the standard third movement of his symphonies, and replace it with something faster and more raucous, the Scherzo (literally “joke”).  This is the fastest and most raucous of them all, a Presto of eye-watering agility. And it is very much a joke. The middle Trio section sets a hymn sung by religious pilgrims of the day amidst a barrage of musical belches and other rude noises. If one knew the hymn, one would have to conclude that Beethoven’s pilgrims had had far too much ale for their own good at some point in their pilgrimage.

Beethoven always went to great lengths to be sure that, no matter how ambitious the previous movements were, the finale always would be a worthy culmination of all that came before it. The first movement of Beethoven 7 was probably the most exciting piece of orchestral music ever written up to that time. How could Beethoven possibly top it?

His answer is brilliantly simple: by narrowing the focus and upping the ante. No time now for slow introductions, no more moments of repose. The Finale of Beethoven Seven explodes into life and never really lets up. If the pilgrims in the Trio of the third movement had been sipping a bit too much ale, the Finale puts the whole world into the reckless embrace of Dionysus, god of wine, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy. In the last 146 bars, Beethoven only drops below ff fortissimo (extremely loud) once, for just a few seconds. How then to make the thing end? Beethoven chose to literally shatter the barriers of what people thought was possible in a work like this, by writing the first ever fff (extremely, extremely loud) in a symphony. Twice!

As mentioned earlier, at the time of their premiere, the similarities between the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were more obvious to most early listeners than their differences. But the differences are everywhere. Where the Seventh opens with a long, grand slow introduction, the Eighth bursts into life Allegro vivace e con brio, at 69 beats per minute, the fastest of his many sonata-allegro movements in ¾ time.  In contrast to the sorrowful minor-key march which serves as the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, the second movement of the Eighth is lighter than air – a witty adaptation of a short, gently satirical piece he had written for Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome – poking fun at the regularity of tempo his friend’s invention was supposed to ensure. Coming from the man who wrote the 14-minute Marcia Funebre and the 27 minute first movement of the Violin Concerto, it’s barely the length of a modern-day pop song, and hardly any weightier in mood.

Where the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh was his most extreme Scherzo, the third movement of the Eighth marked a rather surprising return to a stately, Haydn-esque minuet with hints of a serenade in the gentle duo between solo cello and solo horn.

The Finale of the Eighth is probably the most similar to its sibling in the Seventh – also fast, wild and hugely exciting. But here he tempers Dionysian ecstasy with shades of Haydn’s Apollonian insights. Beethoven had studied with Haydn as a young man, and though he often scoffed at his teacher saying “from Haydn, you can learn nothing!” he probably meant that notorious comment in a more nuanced way. Beethoven knew Haydn’s music well enough to know that, no matter the teaching, one could never match Haydn on his own terms. But in the Finale of the Eighth, Beethoven finally wrote something so funny, so inventive, so dry and so joyful that Papa Haydn would surely have seen it as worthy of his own pen. One of the hallmarks of the best Haydn finales is to take a ridiculously simple, even silly, theme and subject it to the most extreme musical and intellectual reimaginings possible. So it is here, with Beethoven building this playful sounding movement into one of the most dissonant fugues he ever wrote. The music also repeatedly strays into some of the most remote keys he’d ever visited in a movement of this type. In the end, he allows 53 bars of nothing but tonic and dominant to clear the air.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is a joyful dance on the precipice of the chasm into which he was soon to plunge. It hints at great compositional changes to come, as Beethoven was about to embark into years of emotional upheaval, poor health, legal troubles and artistic uncertainty. When he emerged, like a saint purified by suffering, into his “late” period, many of the most fascinating aspects of his new musical language can already be seen to have been bubbling up to the surface in the Eighth Symphony, and it is no accident at all that the piece the Eighth Symphony has the most in common with is his last complete work, the String Quartet in F Major, opus 135. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven had written “Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me? You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill.” In the Eighth Symphony, Beethoven began the difficult work of reclaiming the “tender feeling of goodwill” he had possessed as a child.

Beethoven had a quick answer when his friends told him that everyone at the premiere preferred the Seventh Symphony to the Eighth. “That’s because the Eighth is so much better.”

  • Kenneth Woods