Beethoven's Eighth Symphony
- February 15
Among the many frustrations in Schubert’s tragically short career, none came close to the difficulties he encountered in the world of theater music, with sixteen failed operas in as many years. He had a habit of working with subpar librettos written by his friends; some scores he wisely abandoned midway, and others he brought to fruition only to see them fizzle. A last-minute invitation in 1823 to compose incidental music for the play Rosamunde might have helped opened doors for Schubert in Vienna’s theatrical circle, but the drama by Helmina von Chézy was a flop. The play closed, and Schubert’s music was lost for decades.
Schubert assembled nearly an hour of music for Rosamunde in a matter of weeks, pulling in some movements from existing works. When the incidental music failed, Schubert was at least able to reuse some of the new themes, as in the melody from Entr’acte III, which turned up in the String Quartet in A minor (D. 804), and in a Piano Impromptu in B-flat. This gentle Andantino movement is a perennial favorite among the suite of incidental music, with its elegant string theme in the outer sections and a contrasting episode featuring tuneful woodwind solos. The Ballet Music II features dance accompaniment in a marching gait that tumbles into a lively triplet pulse for a contrasting passage.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Prokofiev left Russia in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, establishing himself in the West with concert tours around the United States and Europe. He lived briefly in New York and Germany, and then settled in Paris in 1923. In that epicenter of the musical avant-garde, Prokofiev made a splash with his colorful and spiky scores, especially the ballets staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But while Stravinsky and the young French composers known as “Les Six” continued to wow Paris with their trendsetting music, Prokofiev moved toward the streamlined style he dubbed “new simplicity.” With little appetite for such music in Europe, Prokofiev drew closer to the Soviet Union, visiting first in 1927 and returning a number of times in the following years. Major Soviet projects such as the 1933 film score for Lieutenant Kijé and the 1934 commission for the ballet Romeo and Juliet helped seal Prokofiev’s direction. In 1936, he settled permanently in Moscow.
The Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1935, turned out to be Prokofiev’s final commission outside of the Soviet Union. Supporters of the French violinist Robert Soetans funded the work, which Prokofiev composed in Paris and in the Soviet Union.
The concerto fulfills the promise of a “new simplicity” from its opening measures, entrusting an unadorned theme to the solo violin. That melody haunts the Allegro moderato movement, ultimately silencing a contrasting lyrical strain and returning for a charged final statement with bellicose plucks. The slow movement takes up the same ascending triad pattern that began the first movement, transporting it to a peaceful accompanying texture for clarinets and pizzicato strings. The solo violin floats above with a melody of timeless beauty and grace, soaring into the instrument’s highest range as the melody passes to the orchestra. A central Allegretto section provides an energized contrast, making the sweet tune’s return all the more affecting. The Allegro ben marcato finale, with its off-kilter dance theme and Spanish flair of castanets, confirms that Prokofiev’s move toward simplification did not excise his wry wit. The music builds to a propulsive coda, the violin’s perpetual motion figures urged forward by a thudding bass drum and throbbing accompaniment.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Upon finishing the Seventh Symphony in the spring of 1812, Beethoven began immediately on his Eighth. He worked on it through a summer retreat to the spa town of Teplitz, where he wrote (but never sent) a heartbreaking love letter to his “Immortal Beloved,” who was probably Antonie Brentano, a married woman from Frankfurt. With the Napoleonic Wars disrupting concert life in Vienna, the Seventh Symphony did not reach the public until the end of 1813, and the Eighth was delayed until February of 1814, in a performance that Beethoven conducted, despite his near-total deafness.
The Eighth Symphony, in its length and instrumentation, is a throwback to Haydn’s “London” Symphonies from the 1790s. Still, Beethoven’s brevity should not be confused with complacency; this was a period in which the central thrust of his music was the distillation of each gesture down to its essence, whether it was the imposing “fate” motive of the Fifth Symphony or the jolly intervals and fragments that underpin the Eighth.
The opening passage of the Eighth Symphony honors “Classical” ideals of balance—downward motion answered by upward, loud followed by soft. Having offered a full glimpse of the primary theme, Beethoven immediately deconstructs it into its essential, leaping gesture. The leaps segue into the secondary theme (in the “wrong” key, incidentally), and this motive gets hung up too and starts leaping again. By the end of the exposition, the whole orchestra is jumping up and down in octaves, a gesture that carries forward into the development section. The climax, marked fortississimo, coincides with the start of the recapitulation, although the primary theme is buried in the basses and bassoons. That unassuming melody ultimately gets the last word, but not until the end of a surprising coda.
The second movement, marked Allegretto scherzando, is as close as this symphony gets to a slow movement. Here the object of obsession is a brisk, three-note pattern: short-short-long, usually cast as a leap up and a step down into a target note. The strings juggle this motive like a hot potato under the watchful eyes of clucking woodwinds. Three notes at times reduce down to two, and finally it ends with a shudder on a single pitch. Having dispensed with the joking in the second movement, the third movement takes the form of a minuet, rather than a more rambunctious scherzo. The warm, slurred string lines offset the dryness of the preceding music, and the contrasting trio section evokes a pastoral air with horn calls and clarinet counter-lines.
The finale flies by at a whirlwind Allegro vivace tempo, which Beethoven specified as 84 measures per minute. (In the tremolo figures, as in the entrance of the violins, each note lasts not quite six-hundredths of a second!) Besides the obvious excitement of such fast music, it invites the ear to draw out larger patterns from within a motion that is too quick to process on a note-by-note basis, much like the process of refinement that occurred compositionally in the first movement.
Aaron Grad ©2013
SPCO concerts are made possible by audience contributions.