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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 8 in F Op 93 (1812)
Allegro vivace e con brio
Tempo di Menuetto
To call Symphony No 8 “the little one”, as Beethoven himself once did, is to ignore the fact that it is also the most explosive of the nine. In no other Beethoven symphony is a movement so peppered with abrupt chords and rip-roaring outbursts than the first movement of this work. In fact, Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 is “little” only in the sense that it is compact. Completed in 1812, along with the Symphony No 7, it possesses the same furiously creative drive in even more concentrated form. Beethoven himself preferred the Eighth to the Seventh. When told that its brevity had disappointed its first audience, he replied that that was because it was “so much better”.
The first movement’s well-clinched opening theme gives an immediate idea of the tautness of the music. Yet the theme’s sublime jollity seems constantly threatened by the volatile quality of so much of the rest of the movement. When – after a development section which has been essentially one huge crescendo – it returns on the cellos and basses at the start of the recapitulation, it has to struggle to make itself heard through the noise of the rest of the orchestra.
The slow movement is a tease, in that it is not a slow movement at all, any more than it is a scherzo, despite its scherzando marking. The origin of its ticking rhythm lay in a canon Beethoven wrote for Johann Maelzel, inventor of one of the metronomes of the period. Here Beethoven’s touch is at its lightest, even when small explosions interrupt the ticking.
Something similar happens in the minuet – the opening bars are so syncopated that the dance-like nature of the music is intentionally concealed. Beethoven obviously had no cause to write anything as retrogressive as a minuet at this stage in his career, and the music has little to do with minuets of the sort he produced in his youth. In a sense, this is an anti-minuet, written in reaction to the huge, circling scherzo of the Symphony No 7. The trio section, with its genial horns and grunting cellos, is as charming as it is humorously grotesque.
The exhilaratingly swerving finale does not avoid head-on collisions between one key and another. Indeed it positively savours them. The momentum hardly relaxes even for the lyrical second subject on the woodwind, or for the profound impulse of what is one of Beethoven’s biggest and greatest codas. culminating in virtuosically pounding kettledrums.
© Conrad Wilson