It is all the more surprising then that such work so full of life could come from the pen of the same person who had thought of committing suicide because of his increasing deafness.
But as Beethoven himself points out in the testament, he was bound to remain alive until he had composed everything that he was compelled to compose.
Beethoven was fully aware that he had started a new path in the symphonic world even before his groundbreaking third symphony. Up to Haydn and Mozart composers had mostly written symphonies in groups of 3 or 6. Beethoven begins his symphonic journey with a single one, performed in 1800, with the idea of having a second one the year after. The idea did not become a reality until three years after, in 1803.
In the slow introduction of his first symphony, Beethoven had already started to deviate from the usual path: from the famous dominant seventh chord as an opening to the way he presented the different sections of the orchestra to the audience.
Beethoven keeps the idea of moving away from the traditional canons in his second symphony as well: the introduction is much longer than any of the Haydn symphonies, or Mozart’s for that matter (except perhaps the Prague symphony K504, coincidentally also in D major).
Ludwig van Beethoven in 1803, painted by Christian Horneman
Collection: Beethovenhaus Bonn
Kaspar Karl van Beethoven, Letter to Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, Wien, March 28, 1802, Autograph in which he offers the 2nd symphony among other compositions.
Courtesy of the Beethoven digital archives at the Beethoven-Haus
Beethoven’s Symphony n.2: an analysis of the 1st movement
According to Berlioz, in this introduction
“the best effects come one after the other without any confusion and always in an unexpected way“.
I think was probably referring to the contrasts that characterize this work.
The piece begins on a fortissimo, full orchestra, then the woodwinds in piano, a small crescendo and then piano again before another fortissimo. These sudden changes of dynamics, occurring continuously throughout the symphony will become more and more part of Beethoven’s musical language.
This Adagio can be divided into 3 blocks: the first block consists of the first 12 bars where Beethoven introduces the woodwinds first, after the first full orchestra chord, and then the strings
The second section consists of another 12 bars, between bar 12-24, and modulates to Bb, with a constant dialogue between strings and woodwinds
The third and last section, between bar 24 and bar 34, is introduced by a dominant pedal in horns and ends on a rapid descending scale of the first violins landing into the Allegro
But before moving to the Allegro, I want to show you one very interesting thing
This very same bar will take on a much more important role in one of Beethoven’s most famous and immortal works: what he’s giving us here is a sneak peak into his 9th symphony.
The first theme is presented by the violas and cellos and is based by a very simple motivic cell, repeated on the arpeggio of the home key
Notice how Beethoven introduces two blocks of the orchestra, the strings and the woodwinds, and keeps them separate until the first tutti (in reverse compared to the introduction). The harmony is pretty straight forward but what we notice again and again is the dynamic contrast: there’s an enormous amount of indication compared to Haydn or Mozart. Most of them, as we learn right from the start, are sudden surprises. This makes the symphony incredibly full of energy and sparkles, keeping the audience (and the players) constantly on edge.
In this first tutti, the motivic cell is shortened
Beethoven often uses the material in this way, shortening it to create a propelling force and augmenting the drama. The same thing happens in his first symphony, or in the Coriolan Ouverture, and even before that in his first piano sonatas.
There’s another element that seems unimportant at first but gradually becomes more and more important
This little descending arpeggio will see different transformations and will become the connecting tissue between the first and the second theme.
Traditionally the first theme is more aggressive in character while the second theme is more cantabile. In this movement, the second theme has almost a fanfare character, keeping up the energy with questions and answers in dynamic contrast. Beethoven exposes it once
and then answers immediately with a dramatic forte in minor
When you get to the downbeat of the second theme, do not go down with your hands: remain up, it will make the piano subito much more effective
By the way, did you notice the rhythm of those 4 notes? It’s the same that we found in the first theme and seemed unimportant at first. This is how Beethoven connects the two themes and establishes a relationship between them.
We come to a sudden suspension and the initial motivic element is used again to speed up the music; and then Beethoven keeps suspending and starting again, teasing us with the dynamics. Even the pianissimo and fortissimo changes are accelerated and transformed into sforzati.
Once again the motivic cell from the strings is used to transition into the development. Not only but the woodwinds part that was answering the strings in the first exposition of the theme is here used, in reverse, as a connecting tissue.
And notice how Beethoven reuses what was a mere accompaniment and transforms its character into something much more relevant
And then we land on a progression that mixes up different elements which, once again, are shortened, creating more drama. Beethoven takes us to the second theme and isolates those famous 4-5 notes.
See how all the elements one by one come together and summarize the whole movement. It’s actually the first time that in a sonata form movement both the first theme (and this was normal) and the second theme (and this is something new) are developed this deeply. Beethoven is starting to rethink and rework the classic sonata form even though he’s not ready to disrupt it just yet. But this way of proceeding opens the doors to the development becoming the heart of the composition where composers can take the most unexpected turns.
From the G major we move to F# minor and then a C# pedal turns into a dominant chord that takes back to the recapitulation. A recapitulation that proceeds by the book until we get to the very final part of the movement: the coda.
It’s probably the first triumphant coda in Beethoven: some of the elements of the exposition, some coming from the development, reach in this coda a real climax. Beethoven’s idea is not to reach the climax in the recapitulation, as he did in his first symphony, but to put it off until the very end of the movement.
We find the back and forth between strings and woodwinds once again, and the dynamic and harmonic tensions until we get to the real climax of this movement
It’s really impossible to determine where all this energy and joy came from considering the period in which it was written. Another thing to consider is that we are reading it with the glasses of 2 centuries of history during which art went through an enormous amount of transformations: we try to see in art what the artist was feeling.
But in the classical period that was almost never the case. Bach, Mozart, Haydn were considered artisans who tailored their music on the commissioner’s needs or the audience will. Their personal lives were not at all relevant to their artistic production.
Or were they? How sure can we be of this? It’s a question that will remain forever unanswered. What we are left with is the amount of emotion that those very same works still instill in us.
No small thing.
And you? Got questions or other considerations? Let me know in the comments below and if you liked this post don’t forget to share it!
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This seems now to be debatable. According to Beethoven-Haus: “Owing to mistaken dates in the earlier biographical literature, concert guides (and therefore programme notes) often place the genesis of the Second Symphony around the time of the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ and evince surprise at its completely different character. More recent sketch analysis has cleared up this confusion: Beethoven had already composed the symphony before his summer sojourn in Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his ‘testament’ in a state of deep depression.”
However, as they mention on the same page, no handwritten sources (apart from a few sketches) have survived for Beethoven’s Second Symphony.