Symphony No. 1
The First Symphony is predominantly fun-loving and playful.
It was completed before Beethoven was thirty years old. Though by no means a student work, it shows his dependence on and allegiance to Haydn. In days when great art flourished, an apprentice began his career by mastering the craft as taught by his teachers. Leonardo da Vinci as a youth learned to paint exactly like Verrocchio, in whose workshop he was trained. Only when, by inner necessity, he needed a new expression for his style did he become original— not as in these days when too many strive to be original simply for the sake of being original.
Though this is a derivative symphony, standing exactly between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is not Haydn but early Beethoven. The boldness which Beethoven was to develop in later life is hinted at the very opening of the symphony. It starts with a discord which may well have shocked contemporary ears. After this introduction the first movement proceeds along traditional lines; yet it is brisk and energetic – even humorous. The most appealing section is the third movement, which is marked Menuetto but differs from other compositions defined as such being less well-mannered and a lot more fun!
That saucy spirit is carried over to the final movement, in which Beethoven teases the listener with a slow introduction; in fact the violins seem to make a false start before he puts us on a merry-go-round.
Symphony No. 2
Now Beethoven takes us to a different world. Though composed only two or three years after the First, the Second indicates that a major development has taken place in the mind of Beethoven. Whether this development was at least partly due to his increasing deafness or whether it was merely the natural development of a genius, no one knows. Beethoven’s contemporaries, who accepted the First Symphony with enthusiasm, were shocked by the Second, particularly its Finale, though to us today it seems tame.
The Introduction to the first movement is noble and reserved. An introspective peace pervades it and only gradually does the mood change. The rhythms become marked and the instrumentation fuller as the composition builds.
The slow movement is a pure song, first intoned by the strings and then adumbrated by the other members of the orchestra. It, too, is lyric and untroubled. By no stretch of the imagination is this the kind of music that one would expect from an unhappy man. Some suggest because Beethoven was despondent he sought solace through such music.
Symphony No. 3
The origin of the title “Eroica,” the “Heroic” Symphony, constitutes one of the best known of musical anecdotes. The tale happens to be true, to boot. At the beginning of Napoleon’s career, when he was still First Consul, Beethoven conceived an inordinate admiration for him. He likened Napoleon to the consuls of ancient Rome. He imagined Napoleon as a benefactor of mankind, courageous enough to strike forcefully in the face of tyranny. But when, in 1804, Bonaparte accepted the title of Emperor and had himself crowned, Beethoven was outraged by what he considered a betrayal of the rights of man. He had just completed the manuscript of a symphony. Now he tore the title page bearing the dedication “Bonaparte.” When the work was published the title had been changed to read: “Heroic symphony, for the celebration of the memory of a great man.” It is said that Beethoven never again could bring himself to pronounce Napoleon’s name. When, many years later, he heard of the Emperor’s death at Saint Helena he is allegedly remarked, “I composed the proper music for this catastrophe.”
What is the meaning of the title? Unlike most musical titles, the music being both heroic in its proportions — as heroic as the “Moses” of Michelangelo —and expressing a struggle which becomes triumph.
The “Eroica” Symphony is not only one of Beethoven’s great works; it is one of the great works of art of any kind. Its drive is so strong that the symphony never lets you escape its grasp. You are in a hurricane of emotion which ravages the heart. Yet the goal is not to reach the end easily, but a blaze of glory.
The symphony is a piece that seems little point in selecting any one of the four movements —though of course the Funeral March is its most celebrated movement —nor in singling out this or that section. It must be experienced as a whole and felt as a whole.
Symphony No. 4
The Fourth is not nearly as popular as the symphony which precedes or follows it. It is a pleasant work, but in spite of its bliss it never approaches the power of the “Eroica” or the intensity of the Fifth. Its most beautiful movement is the second, in which two opposite ideas interweave to form a tapestry of quiet and tender color.
Symphony No. 5
Here we find the potent and concentrated genius that was Beethoven. This symphony is perhaps the most famous single piece of music in existence. Within our time it has become even more famous, the first theme having assumed an extramusical meaning, and serving as a theme song for victory. Of this theme Beethoven is supposed to have said, “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” True or not, the four notes which are heard at the outset and which act as a germinal theme of the musical material of the first movement are now and will forever be known as the “Fate” motive. From this theme, Beethoven builds a movement in which, as in the Third Symphony, we meet the spirit victorious. Once more we are confronted by Beethoven’s belief that Fate can be mastered.
One of the most unusual moments of the symphony occurs at the end of the third movement, when it flows into the fourth without a pause. The music seems to die down completely, the drum carrying the rhythm forward while the strings spin a web in some subterranean cave.
Suddenly the web is torn, the walls of the cave split and almost at once the whole orchestra bursts into a surging crescendo.
When the symphony was released, a man who heard it confessed that it so upset and bewildered him that when he wanted to put on his hat he couldn’t find his head. Goethe grumbled to Mendelssohn, “How big it is, quite wild! Enough to bring the house about one’s ears.”
Yet, familiar as it is, any good performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony fills us with a sense of wonder. We all know it very well. In a strange way we don’t know it at all.
Symphony No. 6
Beethoven leaves no doubt that he wants to share with us the pleasure he takes in Nature, his love for the open air. In a way which is difficult to describe, the whole symphony has an open-air quality about it.
The first movement denotes cheerful impressions awakened by a trip to the country. It is spring, going on summer, and the world is in a happy mood. Hector Berlioz said about it:
Flocks of chattering birds fly overhead; and now and then the atmosphere seems laden with vapors; heavy clouds flit across the face of the sun, then suddenly disappear, and its rays flood the fields and woods with torrents of dazzling splendor. These are the images evoked in my mind by hearing this movement; and I fancy that, in spite of the vagueness of instrumental expression, many hearers will receive the same impressions.
The second movement is the “Scene by the Brook.” We are in a quiet spot, though the suggestion of bubbling water ripples through the music. We seem to be lying on the bank of a stream, observing its life closely. We seem to “hear” the grass grow. How sunny and fresh and cool it is! Toward the end of the movement solo instruments take the role of birds: the flute is the nightingale, the oboe the quail, the clarinet the cuckoo. Beethoven, walking with a friend in the suburban woods of Vienna, said: “It was here that I composed the scene of the woods, and the birds composed with me.” He then added, “They are meant only for a joke.”
The third movement, the Scherzo, is a “Merry gathering of country folk.” A village band is playing. It is not a good band; it cannot play expertly. Beethoven said that he had observed how village musicians often play in their sleep, sometimes letting their instruments fall; then, awakening with a start, they throw in a few vigorous blows spontaneously, but generally in the right key. We have here such a musician: he plays the bassoon. He can play only two notes on his instrument and, having fallen asleep, he comes in at the wrong moment.
The country dance is interrupted by a “Thunderstorm” (transition to the fourth movement). The people scatter before the gusts of wind and raindrops. Lightning and thunder break in full force.
It is characteristic of any great composer that his transitions from one mood to another are expertly done so that no seams are showing. Observe the wonderful transition here from the brash dance of the country folk to the storm and then again from the storm into the Finale, “Shepherd’s Song. Glad and grateful feelings after the storm,” is actually the fifth movement of the symphony. A shepherd’s song is heard. It expands and rises to a hymn of gratitude and thanksgiving. Toward the end of the movement the full orchestra suddenly stops. Next, in a new tempo, much slower and broader, the shepherd’s song is heard once again.
Symphony No. 7
On this symphony the critics have gone to work with a vengeance. Schumann imagined in the second movement a rustic marriage ceremony; Berlioz conjured up a peasant dance (presumably a different dance from that to be heard in the “Pastoral”); one Russian musicologist associated the symphony with a masquerade; another found that the music contained military pomp. Still another fancied a tale of Moorish knighthood. French author Romain Rolland felt that Beethoven here appeared in the role of Bacchus, “who crushes delicious nectar for mankind;” Wagner, coming a little nearer to a musical definition, called the Seventh “the apotheosis of the dance.”
These interpretations simply warn us of the danger of grafting nonmusical explanations onto music. The truth is that we are at liberty to imagine what we like. The glorious Seventh is a symphony of motion that it is very rhythmic. It spins with a tempo free and easy.
The works of a composer (or of a painter or of a writer) show a consistency of style as unmistakable as is his handwriting. Yet within his total output each major work is distinguished by a style of its own, never quite to be duplicated. This is true here: the Seventh creates a world of its own, one in which the light is brilliant. There is as much difference between the Fifth Symphony and the Seventh Symphony as there is between Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers.
It has an extraordinary Introduction. It is long. Very long. Beethoven seems to be preparing something very important and takes his time. It builds, the violins moving upward in scale passages to a great climax, then sliding into the rhythmic pattern. The main theme is born out of that pattern, the melody springing from the rhythm in painless birth.
The second movement moves like a graceful procession. So popular is this movement that at one time conductors used to insert it in performances of other symphonies to elicit applause.
The fourth movement carries the Finale of what we now think of as classical symphony. In its day the style was unheard of.
Symphony No. 8
The Seventh Symphony reached popularity in 1814 when Beethoven came forth with his Eighth. At its premiere the Seventh was repeated and was “received with much applause again.” But the Eighth was a relative failure. Could the Viennese audience have been disappointed that this newest product was a small-scale composition, not at all what the audience might have expected? Beethoven remarked that the Eighth failed because it was much better music than the Seventh. We take this as a remark of a celebrated man who uttered it in a moment of irritation. We should not think that the Eighth Symphony is not better than the Seventh; it is different.
It is full of humor, replete with musical jokes. It is swift and so brief that it does not even contain the usual slow movement of a romantic symphony.
The second movement has a curious story behind it. At the time Beethoven was composing it he had become friendly with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who had invented a musical chronometer, the forerunner of the metronome. According to some authorities the tick-tock rhythm one hears in the movement was Beethoven’s tribute to the new gadget.
Symphony No. 9
The Third Symphony is motivated by the “heroic” idea; the Ninth the “brotherhood of man.” Is it futile to attempt to express in a symphony these philosophical concepts? Beethoven was not afraid to do so, though he had to call poetry to his aid and add the human voice to his orchestra.
The world instantly recognized the importance of the symphony. The audience demonstrated enthusiastically at the premiere so that when it broke out in approving cries for the fifth time the police commissioner had to yell “Silence!” Three bursts of applause were the rule for the Imperial Family. Beethoven got five. Beethoven was seated in the orchestra and was supposed to supervise the performance. The conductor, however, had instructed his forces to pay no attention to Beethoven’s beating of the time. Engrossed in the score, the deaf composer heard nothing of the commotion and the shouting of the audience, until one of the singers pulled him by the sleeve and induced him to turn and face the people. His turning about acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.
The fundamental “program” of the Ninth is clearly indicated in Schiller’s poem. The usually accepted interpretation of the symphony is that the first movement expresses Destiny; the second, physical Exuberance; the third, Love. By such way a listener arrives at liberation and unity, at Joy, as expressed in the fourth movement.
At the outset we seem to be hovering in space, in a great void, out of which the world is shaped and Destiny begins to function. The second movement is the greatest of Beethoven’s Scherzos, almost terrifying in its vitality. The third consists of a double set of Theme and Variations; they spell each other in a gentle seesaw of beauty.
The Finale unfolds as a drama. The melody of the “Hymn to Joy” slowly emerges, once the themes of the three previous movements have been passed in review and impatiently discarded. The melody is first suggested by the cellos and basses. Then it takes hold of the entire orchestra, finally to be joined by the voices of the four solo singers and the chorus. The baritone introduces the vocal part: “O friends, friends, not these sounds!” he proclaims. “Let us sing something more pleasant, more full of gladness. O Joy, let us praise thee!”
Beethoven lived on for another three years, composing his last Quartets. He died on 26 March 1827. On the day of his burial the schools of Vienna were closed and twenty thousand people turned out for his funeral. A stranger asked an old woman at a fruit store what the commotion was all about. She said, “Don’t you know? They are burying the General of the musicians.”