Friday, October 24, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #2

Today's post will cover Beethoven's Second Symphony, the other symphony on my 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

Like the First, this symphony is part of Beethoven's "backward looking" period. Most of what we hear in this symphony bears striking resemblance to what you'd hear from Mozart, Haydn or other composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

And yet, while the structure and many of the melodic and harmonic elements sound "Classical" you can also hear, at times, a level of stress and emotional content unheard of in a typical Classical-era symphony.

Part of the increased emotional content of this symphony was doubtless a function of Beethoven's personal struggles. It was at this time he was beginning to suffer from the deafness that would ultimately rob him completely of his hearing:

"But what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing! Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back. It seemed impossible to leave the world before I created all that I felt myself called upon to accomplish and so I endured this wretched existence."
--Beethoven, ca. 1802 (about the time when he completed his Second Symphony)

As I spend more time repeatedly listening to Beethoven's early symphonies and thinking about them in the context of Beethoven's personal history, I'm finding these works more fascinating than I ever imagined. And they take on even more significance and gravity when you think of these works as precursors to the next seven symphonies Beethoven would write, which include two or perhaps three of the greatest symphonies in the entire history of classical music.

One brief point of order before we get to the listener notes. Let me clear up what might be a source of terminological confusion for classical music newbies: the term "Classical" with a capital C refers specifically to the Classical era of classical music (usually considered the period from the early 1700s to the early 1800s). When I use the term "classical" with a lower case C, I'm referring more broadly to classical music of all eras. Hopefully that clears things up a bit!

Listener Notes for Beethoven's Second Symphony:
1) The opening chord is quite a contrast from the First Symphony, isn't it?

2) I particularly like how the meter changes from eighth notes to triplets early in the first movement (occurs at about 1:27 in track 5 on this CD).

3) Listen at the 2:52 mark in the first movement: That's when the "Mozartian" portion of this symphony begins, and it lasts essentially until the end of the movement. It almost makes you want to say "Too many notes!"

4) If you have good set of headphones, turn up the volume from 5:08 to 5:16 in the first movement (during the brief flute solo). You can hear the musicians frantically turning the pages of their music.

5) Am I the only person who thinks of the opening notes from Home, Home on the Range when I hear the key theme of the second movement? I'm probably going to go straight to classical music hell for saying that. I don't mean to make fun.

6) I struggle for a word to describe the third movement because it's just not a word you'd use to describe Beethoven's music. But for better or worse, that word is "fun." This brief, four minute long movement is genuinely fun music.

7) Have you ever heard Beethoven give a bassoonist the kind of action he doles out in the fourth movement? I wonder if bassoon players out there enjoy playing this work.

8) At 2:58 in the fourth movement (track 8) you can hear more frantic page turning, and at 3:30-3:33 you can hear the french horn miss an entrance. And for the next 20 to 30 seconds the entire woodwind section loses its footing. The clarinet comes in slightly off-key, the bassoon flubs an entrance and then the oboe flubs an entrance. Only the flutes hang tough here. But everyone quickly gets back on their feet to finish off the movement.

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