Beethoven’s “little symphony in F” is an often forgotten one. It is nicknamed so because it is the shorter of his two F major symphonies (the other being No. 6), not even reaching the 30-minute mark; and has been received with lukewarm reception due to its premiere in 1814, which allegedly received tepid applause after its performance. This upset Beethoven as he believed it was far superior to his previous ‘Symphony No. 7’. While I don’t agree with that sentiment entirely, I empathize that Beethoven’s 8th symphony is one of the most refined and interesting of all his works.
It’s unusually upbeat for Beethoven; there isn’t a defined slow movement, which typically is the second movement of a given piece whereas the second movement here is a brief, graceful exercise in clockwork (which I’ll soon elaborate on). ‘Symphony No. 8’ is an experimental work; although its disposition for fun is evident throughout, there are many stylistic intricacies Beethoven was tweaking with that have never been explored before. Namely, he expounded on the potential of a coda section, and embellished on his newfound fondness for rapid-fire sixteenth note patterns. The first movement Allegro vivace e con brio
begins in a standard grandiose affair, progressing as an elegant, powerful opening in traditional sonata form. The second toys with a metronomic motif that inspires anticipation and glee, swaying to and fro with bursts of orchestral unison riffs peppered throughout. Tempo di Menuetto
comes the closest to a conventional waltz, but unlike other ballads, this movement has suspense lingering over every note. It may be soothing and inviting one moment, but often it’s merely a façade for an impending eruption of orchestral vitality in the most pleasant sense.
However, the highlight of the symphony is undoubtedly its seven-minute finale, Allegro vivace
, which is among the more intriguing of Beethoven’s closers. It begins delicately with a faint call-and-response between the violins and flutes when all of a sudden a “wrong” note (C♯) is played with the utmost vigor before transitioning back to the original melody at the newly established volume. I say “wrong” because in the key of F major, of which this movement is rooted in, there is no C♯. It simply does not exist in the scale, and the orchestra accenting that note specifically sticks out like a sore thumb. At least, it only does so to foreshadow an unusual and brilliant modulation where the C♯ is a welcome dominant chord (in other words, it resolves itself). The gargantuan coda follows and sums up the symphony with frightening pompousness and conviction. It serves as the disclaimer: the symphony is over when Beethoven says it it’s over. He has made that abundantly clear.
Tchaikovsky praised ‘Symphony No. 8’s finale as “one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven.” It’s hard to disagree, because Beethoven’s self-proclaimed “little” symphony in F major was masquerading itself as an overlooked misstep when in fact it was and still is a subtly profound stroke of genius; an admirable accession to Beethoven’s extensive, brilliant repertoire.
Daniel Barenboim & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan & the Berliner Philharmoniker