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Length: c. 26 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
The Eighth Symphony hits the ground running like none of Beethoven’s other symphonies, with no slow introduction, attention-getting chords, throat-clearing, or easing in. It then stalls the way no other Beethoven symphony does, when its sweeping, vibrant opening subject becomes harmonically static, then dissolves into silence, which in turn is followed by a few timid notes on the bassoon, playing the symphonic counterpart to the operatic comic baritone. After this first joke, there is a second one: the second theme is presented by the violins in the “wrong” key, and then immediately “corrected” through a meandering modulation. This sort of gag, running roughshod over accepted practice, would have been more apparent to an audience in 1814 than to one used to 20th-century music that observes no such rules. The movement is otherwise forthright, even jubilant, particularly in the triumphant recapitulation (marked fff, which was how Beethoven said “as loud as possible”) of the main theme, which is unusual because the melody is moved down to the bass while the violins soar imposingly. Beethoven doesn’t give us any new winks until the very end, when he sets up a big finish several times, only to let it dissipate in some delicate knocking and a pianissimo “the end.”
The second movement is famous for its tick-tock accompaniment in the woodwinds, an imitation of a metronome. Beethoven embraced the metronome wholeheartedly. The Allegretto scherzando’s chirpy tune and ticking figure are from a silly little canon (“To Mälzel,” WoO 162) Beethoven wrote to honor, or lampoon, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (the inventor of the metronome), rather in the spirit of a Friars Club roast. The movement is Beethoven at his cutest, full of sudden explosions and silences, peekaboo figures and double takes.
Since there has already been a scherzo of sorts (the Symphony has no slow movement) the third movement is marked “tempo di menuetto,” and it is rife with the sort of rhythmic irregularities that characterize many of Haydn’s more whimsical minuets. It even reiterates the first joke of the first movement, interrupting its flow and having the bassoon restart things. The trio, with its flowing lines in the horns and clarinets, is entirely serious.
The finale’s jittery, rustling principal theme diminishes into near silence, only to be rudely interrupted by a loud unison C-sharp which, in a respectable piece in F, is utterly beyond propriety, the musical equivalent of a joy buzzer or pie-in-the-face. Its immediate effect is to turn the quiet opening of the movement into a romp. Beethoven reprises the “wrong-key” second subject: this time it appears in the strings in the not-even-close key of A-flat before the woodwinds take it up in the “correct” key of C. He also brings back, at the end of a powerful and highly contrapuntal development section, the by-now-familiar “everybody stops for the bassoon solo” effect, with a new twist: the bassoon is in unison with the timpani.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.