Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 9, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Where the Seventh Symphony is an expansive giant with much in common with the “Eroica” Third Symphony, the Eighth is a tautly compressed work – almost “neo-classical” in aspect, if not its subversive attitudes. Beethoven sketched it roughly contemporaneously with the Seventh, which he finished first. The only one of Beethoven’s symphonies without a dedication, it had its premiere in February 1814, on another concert with the Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory.
The first obvious point of concision: no introduction, no chords, just a jump from the starting gate into a manic race. Which then stumbles, comically, in only the first of many musical jokes, the rude humor of which would have been much more apparent then than it is now, although many years later Gustav Mahler was disturbed by it enough to reorchestrate the beginning of the recapitulation, “correcting” one of Beethoven’s pranks.
Like the Seventh, the Eighth Symphony has no true slow movement. Instead there is a “scherzoish” Allegretto that ticks along like one of Maezel’s metronomes. It has often been written that this movement – in tune and in ticking – is a parody or arrangement of a canon that Beethoven improvised in honor of Maelzel in 1812. Scholars now believe, however, that Anton Schindler, the composer’s friend and highly unreliable biographer, may have created both story and canon long after the fact. Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony and other works could have provided a model, were one needed; Maelzel did not produce his metronome until after the Eighth Symphony was completed and the business break with the composer occurred.
Having given us a sort of pseudo-scherzo in place of a slow movement, Beethoven reverts to a minuet for the third movement, a type of movement that his scherzos had made obsolete. (His last previous minuet had been in a string quartet in 1806.) This one is thumpingly humorous in the main section, however, but seriously lyrical in its Trio, burnished by horn and clarinet duets.
The finale is another mad dash, though begun softly, with silent hesitations. The loud, dissonant interruption plays an important role in the huge coda, one of the most over-the-top and outsize codas from the master of the outrageous coda. Tchaikovsky, not noted for his fun side, thought this movement one of Beethoven’s greatest symphonic masterpieces.
The Eighth Symphony was not disliked by Beethoven’s contemporaries, but little favored either, particularly in comparison with the Seventh. When asked why by his piano student Carl Czerny, Beethoven replied, “Because the Eighth is so much better.”