01-02-2006 - Traces, n.2


Simplicity and Candor

by Kristi Brown-Montesano

In June of 1815, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to his friend, Johann Peter Salomon, who was living in London at the time. Salomon, a violinist and impresario, had earned himself a lasting place in the annals of music history as the man who helped bring Haydn and his symphonies to London for two sensational (and profitable) concert seasons. Now it was Beethoven who needed Salomon’s support: in his letter he expressed a hope that his “honored countryman” might speak with a publisher in London and offer “the following works of mine.”
In his list, Beethoven included a “Grand Symphony in A” (noting in parentheses, “one of my best”) and a “small Symphony in F.” These works are, of course, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, completed a few months apart in 1812. Born in the shadow of the immense Seventh and eclipsed later by the colossal Ninth, the “small Symphony in F” has frequently been slighted in reception; many critics have unfairly dismissed it as a less remarkable work, citing its more conventional adherence to eighteenth-century forms such as the minuet and trio, relatively modest dimensions, and generally lighter mood. The critical tendency to favor the “heroic” Beethoven–that is, the works that most strongly evoke the suffering, striving Artist and his radical innovations–fails to recognize the special quality of the Eighth Symphony: a deceptive simplicity and candor, which Grove aptly described as “a portrait of the author in daily life,” revealing “his most natural and characteristic personality.”
This human, quotidian Beethoven could be regulated and mannerly, if he chose, but he was also humorous and teasing– sometimes aggressively so. Beethoven himself described this aspect of himself as ausgeknöpft, or “unbuttoned.” Letters to his friend, the Hungarian Baron Zmeskall–written in the same year as the Eighth Symphony–give us a good idea of what this “unbuttoned” Beethoven was like. A letter from February 1812 shows Beethoven’s love for puns and word play. He invites the Baron, “wonderful, chief, soaring man in the world” who has “bestowed on us a portion of your buoyancy” to join him at the Swan Inn “which by its name is the very place to talk of such a matter.”
In another missive a few days later, Beethoven refers to some music he has completed for a new theater in the Baron’s territories. He includes an amusingly sardonic rebuke to the Hungarian Count Brunswick, who cancelled out on a journey they were to make together:

Damned, dear little ex-music Count, what the devil do you mean–will you come to the Swan [the inn where Beethoven was staying]? no? yes. From the enclosed you see all that I have done for the Hungarians. It is something quite different when a German, without giving his word, undertakes something, as, for instance, a Hungarian Count B., who allowed me, for some paltry trifle or other, to travel alone, and in addition kept me waiting without expecting anything.– best ex-music Count, I am your best real dear little BEETHOVEN.

He adds to Zmeskall, “Send back the enclosed at once, for we want to blame the Count for something else.” The Eighth Symphony is filled with this same mixture of levity and unease, banter and belligerence, which reveals itself early in the opening Allegro vivace e con brio. In the middle of the initial presentation of the main themes, the music suddenly “sticks”–like a scratched CD–on a dominant-seventh chord, resisting resolution. The braying oscillations in the violins grow more and more emphatic, until the entire orchestra shuts down completely for a full measure. When the music begins again, the harmony has dropped down a half step (to an A7 chord); the bewildered second theme cannot seem to figure out where it is going, melodically or harmonically. It hedges between D major and D minor, but–after a conspicuous ritard–downshifts unexpectedly to C. Beethoven repeats this disorienting trick one more time, before wrangling all of the instruments together for a jaunty closing section.
The short second movement, a quirky Allegretto scherzando, cost Beethoven its fair share of labor, as indicated by the large number of sketches he left behind. Beethoven generates this “little” scherzo from the mechanical theme, breaking it into pieces to be tossed about playfully in the staccato and pizzicato texture. A rascally tremolo “shiver” in the strings pops in and out, saving the best surprise for the end. The third movement (Tempo di Menuetto) preserves the traditional formal structure of the Classical minuet and trio, but Beethoven still injects humor–as his teacher Haydn did–into the courtly dance. The ungainly, horn-heavy final passage, punctuated by clunky timpani beats, conjures an image of mismatched dance partners–one martial, the other gallant–who are unable to get their steps together. A propulsive triplet rhythm galvanizes the final Allegro vivace, a sonata rondo, in which the nimble, light-hearted theme is intermittently given a fortissimo unison shove to a “wrong” note. Of course, with Beethoven, such “errors” are not only intentional, but brilliantly correct, leading us exactly where he wants us to go.