performed by the Gewändhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly
Bear with me. There are a lot of videos to see in today’s post.
We begin the first part of our very German[ic] series with Beethoven. (I say Germanic because some are Austrian, some are German, and if I’d really wanted to be thorough, I’d have started with Mozart, but here we are. I’m ridiculously excited about this next stretch of symphonies, as I described here, and am considering preparing non-definitive series for Russian music, and maybe more. This current batch will get us through the new year. Let’s begin!) Listen to the piece above first, then listen to the maestro talk about it in his deep voice and Italian accent. He gets to the second symphony a few minutes in. (There’s one more video below that you cannot miss if you’re relatively new to classical music. I’ve linked it there.)
I had always kind of pegged you as the typical almost cliche sort of symphonist. Ask anyone to name the first composer that comes to mind, and of most laymen, you’ll get Beethoven (and perhaps be graced with a hum of the intro of that symphony everyone knows the first ten seconds of).
My obsession with Mahler over the past year or so has kept me somewhat preoccupied and I haven’t been spending as much time with other standard pieces as I should. But I feel I am finally falling for this guy. Listening to different performances, comparing notes and interpretations, reading the scores, all of that tends to open up a piece a lot more and help me appreciate it over time. It is paying off with Beethoven.
If his number one was Haydn, this one feels like Mozart. I say that not having a very deep specific familiarity with either of those composers’ works, but that is to say that number two feels more mature (or advanced) than its predecessor, as it should be. It seems to be the odd-numbered symphonies of Beethoven that get all the attention, with the exception of the first, but this one really shouldn’t be getting any kind of snub. It’s perfect Beethoven. It’s bigger and bolder and not as polite or “safe” as the first (but even it has its jokes and bold statements), but not as personal and expressive as the third. It’s generally lively and crisp and energetic and fun, but has an undercurrent of gloom woven into it that begins to open up to the listener after a few go-rounds (at least for me).
One of the early symphonies of the 19th century, it was written in 1801 and 1802. The composer’s deafness was becoming more apparent (to him, not in the piece) and he was accepting the permanence of this condition. The piece premiered in April of 1803, along with the third piano concerto and his Christ on the Mount of Olives. Although it’s only his second symphony, it still counts as one of the last works of the composer’s early period.
You may want to read Wikipedia’s article on the Heiligenstadt testament to give you some insight into what’s going on in the composer’s life at this point in time, and how despite all that, this piece still ends up as, on the whole, lively and upbeat. I dunno that I could be so optimistic, unless that optimism is in itself a coping mechanism. Just reading the contents of that letter (or the article about it) may lead you to think it would be a terribly desperate piece of music, but it also puts into perspective the energy of the piece, and perhaps some of the yearning beauty of the second movement into context.
The symphony is perfectly pleasant to listen to for a modern audience, but if you have a greater familiarity with the expectations of the day or just happen to be over 200 years old, you may know that the nature of the piece could be considered inappropriate or shocking to audiences of the time. According to some resources, this is the first official symphonic “scherzo,” or at least the first use of the word in a symphony. These final two movements are fraught with contrasts of volume, suddenly loud and instantly pianissimo. It’s kind of a rompy, bombastic gallopy race, the expressions of which were considered inappropriate for a symphony of the time, but nothing that would raise any eyebrows today. In fact, of the symphony, Wikipedia mentions:
One Viennese critic for the Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World) famously wrote of the Symphony that it was “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”
It seems like some (many?) of the “jokes” here are in the fourth movement, with harmonies or chords or something, but I don’t know anything about that, so I won’t comment on it. It just feels… Snarky and exciting and intensely lively. This site here says:
The 2nd Symphony sent further shock waves [as compared to the first] through his critics, not only because of the breadth of the opening adagio, but also the wide-ranging modulations of the finale. These were considered to be audacious in the extreme.
What I will comment on before getting around to the rest of the piece is the reason I chose Chailly and the Gewändhaus for this recording. Harmoncourt was a close second, but Chailly nailed it I think, through and through. While their approaches to the fourth movement are the same, Harnoncourt isn’t as bold in the other three movements. Chailly sticks to his guns. He’s put a lot of thought into his approach, so watch his comments above, but his decisions in interpretation change the entire feel of the piece, and they make sense to me when listening. If you’re new to classical music in general, or don’t quite get a lot of the ideas behind structure in classical pieces, an analysis like the one below could be a tremendous help:
The first movement opens with a commanding tutti, contrasted with delicate woodwinds. This kind of contrast is typical of the piece. Strings enter, and depending on your recording, this introduction lasts a solid few minutes (should be at least two) and the general feeling is… Beethovenesque. This drawn out introduction ends, and in Chailly’s recording, it’s at about 2:20 that the exposition itself begins, in the violas, with the cellos joining shortly thereafter. The repeat starts again from here. The first theme is stringy (that sounds negative… just… string-heavy) and fast, kind of related to the intro, and I like looking at the score and seeing how he has divided the winds and paired them among or against the strings. This is awesome writing. But as you start to notice and appreciate this, the first theme is over, things go quiet again, and the clarinets, bassoons and horns have a bucolic sort of call that begins the second theme. The entire orchestra answers, and this happens once more. The rest of this second theme is big and bold, save one sudden silent moment, and even it pulses to roar back up to a finish. The end of the exposition is the same as (or at least similar to) the bridge that led us to the second theme from the first. We are squarely in the development now, and it’s key changes and familiar material all different ways, but we can revel in it a bit more here. There is a considerable amount of tension in this section, as I suppose there should be. I think it’s easy to see (hear?) how the themes are twisted and modulated and changed and manipulated. It’s familiar, but not entirely. It’s a good example of a development section, and it’s just as clear when the recapitulation begins and the first theme comes back. The coda is also quite neatly demarcated. The piece feels justifiably like it should end. We’ve heard this bit before and it’s where the exposition ended, but instead of launching into the development (like before) or ending altogether, we have a coda. This movement is quite a small sonata-form movement bookended by a very long intro and a relatively large outro. It’s not hard to miss. The movement is only 12-ish minutes, but it feels so much more than that because of what Beethoven packed into here. It’s lively and contrasting and kind of an epic and triumphant scope of twelve minutes. Bravo.
If that weren’t enough, the second movement is also in sonata form, although without the lengthy introduction; it’s simpler here. We get right into the first slow, peaceful subject, and a dark, almost unsettling sort of bridge. It’s tense, guys. We’re into the second theme before long, and it’s even more pleasant. It feels like what a summer holiday in Austria should feel like. The sweetest, most delicately beautiful moment is the closing section of the exposition, after the second subject has kind of finished. It begins on page thirty of my score, father helps…. It starts in second violins, and then they back-and-forth with the horns for a bit before this sweet moment is over. The development sounds a lot like the bridge between the first and second themes, but that undercurrent of dark foreboding is really strong in this middle section. The contrast is palatable and it is delicious. The development section here is the real heart of the piece, where all the drama happens, and after a dramatic climb in the strings, it’s over. We then get a repeat of the first two subjects in the recapitulation, and another coda, but not before that amazing, breathtakingly pleasant little bit appears again in the closing cadence.
What you may or may not notice here is that after these first two movements, we’ve already gotten through two thirds of the piece.
Chailly’s second movement is far brisker than Bernstein, Kubelík, etc., as described above. Most other recordings hover around 10-11 minutes, while Chailly clocks in at around 9. In this recording, even the slow movement keeps the momentum of the piece. In slower interpretations, it was much more a slow kind of remove from the blazing fast action of the other movements. In some ways, though, it broke up that action. The defining characteristics, for me, of this movement are the supremely pleasant moments contrasted with an undercurrent of dark kind of foreboding. Again, other performances of this piece, while NOT wrong, are nice enough, but relative to this interpretation, begin to hint at torpidity. What that means for me is that this contrast between bright pleasantness and dark is less apparent. Chailly conducts the movement, as he says, in one. If you’re used to listening to almost any other recording, as I was, this at first may make you want to make me slam on the brakes and take a deep breath… But once you settle in, there’s a tightness, a concentrated springiness that gives the movement real life and structure. It’s THIS feeling that contrasts even better with some of the darker passages that remind you that as lively and bouncy as most of this piece is, and even though he was out for the summer, Beethoven was coming to grips with his deafness, and it put a lot of pressure on him. This is really the only movement (for me) where that kind of pensive emotion comes into (maybe not even) full view.
The third movement, a tiny little compact scherzo, gets us back to the fast string work that kind of characterizes this entire piece. It’s absolutely fun… And fast and exciting. I love this movement to bits. It’s a typical scherzo and trio, with AB parts, a trio, then AB parts again. The repeat at the end is shorter. The B theme of the scherzo itself is the bit that swells and makes it feel like you’re riding a roller coaster or riding your bike way too fast over a hill. The trio is pleasant and woodwindy, but not without it’s energetic string moments. This movement would be good practice to study and practice listening for different sections of a movement. These are brief and easy to identify. It’s not long and drawn out; on the contrary, it’s fast, fun, and energetic. It’s also the only movement of this symphony NOT in sonata form.
As Chailly describes, the fourth is reaching the limits of possibility for the players, but shouldn’t sound that way. Same thing, first theme, second theme, cadence, development. The first theme here… Well, just read this (again, from Wikipedia):
The fourth movement, Allegro molto, is composed of very rapid string passages. Musicologist Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music describes the highly unusual opening motif as a hiccup, belch or flatulence followed by a groan of pain. According to Greenberg:“Beethoven’s gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress – like the fall of 1802 – were legendary. … It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it. Otherwise, how could such an interpretation become common coin? And common coin it is.”
That sounds like a joke… by the musicologist… that classical music could be so… uncouth. But perhaps it is. In any case, that’s the first theme. The second theme is far more polite and delicate. The ‘fart’ noticeably returns to mark the beginning of the development, but leads elsewhere.
Again with codas. This movement is almost 1/3 coda, but I’m okay with that; it’s an awesome coda. This is where lots of weird modulations and plays on the intro start. It stops and starts again, and then just builds to this fun, relentless sort of drive. I imagine this is the hideous writhing dragon that was referred to earlier. It has a solidly long passage of quiet peacefulness that’s almost unsettling, because we if we’ve gotten used to anything about this piece, it’s that this quietude won’t last, and it is sure enough broken, but gloriously. This is the fast passage work that gives me chills, and then the movement, and the whole piece, ends.
Chailly’s interpretation got me to thinking.
Almost everything in music has an interpretive range of dynamics, tempo, etc., and things tend to stop making sense or sound bad beyond those margins. A fast passage may sound good a bit faster, but that does not mean it will sound better a lot faster. Chailly is driving this bus all kinds of fast, and it’s absolutely thrilling. I can only imagine that Beethoven intended it to be that way. Even if this isn’t your style, Chailly gives compelling reasons for why he did it the way he did, and it sounds like success, but it isn’t the only success. Kubelík and Abbado and Bernstein and Karajan all do well, but this is a unique approach, and I loved it. Also, I just like to listen to Chailly talk.
But here’s the thing. Chailly’s strict adherence to the tempi in the score may be considered an anachronism by some, but it’s kind of like, the orchestral version of the pedal for the piano. Plenty of people make use of some pedal with Bach, but should they? It is like a historically informed performance, and you’ll notice that Harnoncourt’s interpretation is along these lines, but not to such an extreme.
This gets me thinking of all sorts of questions, like how composers seem to be working sometimes decades ahead of critics, how (obviously not all, but) many pieces are panned or criticized or ridiculed, but later become gems of the repertoire. Why? Is it because the composer’s vision is more inspired than the critics’ opinions? Motive? Conflict of interest? Politics? Obviously some pieces were panned and never really heard from again; score one for the critics, but it’s funny to think about so many pieces that never caught on in their day. Why? Some still haven’t. Who’s going to be the next Mahler, the undiscovered, under-appreciated musical genius whose music only shines once the composer himself is no longer around to bask in the fame? What’s left to be discovered, and do you trust the system? These are questions I feel I should address elsewhere, but it all gets me to thinking.
Also, if you don’t ‘get’ this piece, please go watch the color-coded analysis above. It could transform this piece of music into a logical, structured work of art for you.
P.S. I feel what has been expressed here is very convincing, but again, there’s no right or wrong, within certain bounds. It depends on how you like your Beethoven. Bernstein seems always to be a go-to choice for a more indulgent reading, and his traversal of all the symphonies in Vienna (the ensemble it seems a large number of Beethoven cycles feature), are certainly worthy of attention. At least as far as this symphony goes, I feel Abbado (who I have recently come to love) is slightly less…. Whatever Bernstein is, and Kubelík even less so. They’re all good. But for my money, in the unjustly somewhat ignored second symphony, Chailly gets my vote, and I’m eager to hear what else his cycle has to offer.