Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3

(I've finished this entry...scroll down to read the rest)

It's fairly well known that Beethoven was deaf. However, total deafness did not hit the composer until at least after 1812, as has been attested by people who knew him at the time. Until that, his deafness was not an every day affair, as some days he would be able to hear well, and some not at all. However, by 1802, it was becoming clear that he was gradually losing his hearing, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

In that year, along with Symphony No.2 in D Major Op., Op 36, Beethoven also composed a complex letter that has become known as the Heiligenstatd Testament. (A little more can be learned here.) In the document, which was a sort of last will, suicide note, and rave against God, Beethoven begins, "O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf." The document was found among his papers after he died in 1827, so he managed to keep it secret during that time. (The links above provide a full translation of the letter).

Though Beethoven was expressing his grief and rage, the letter may have served as a kind of catharsis, for it was also in 1802 when he composed is Second Symphony. Having spent some time with this work lately, I wonder if Beethoven was one of those people who suffer from terrible depression and yet create cutting and hilarious comedy. The symphony is bright, joyful, and even a bit playful.

According to Robert Greenberg, it has been fairly well accepted that the fourth movement is a musical depiction of Beethoven's gastrointestinal maladies. There are themes which take on the cadence of belches, burps, growls, and flatulence. Once you understand this, the movement (pardon the pun) is pretty funny.

It takes a strong personality to rave against God and yet turn your tummy sounds into an enjoyable piece of art.

The Third Symphony in E Flat Major, Op. 55, according to Greenberg, was initially entitled "Bonaparte", however, Beethoven removed the dedication in disgust when Napoleon declared himself emperor. Further, the same source tells us that it was this symphony was a breakaway piece, not only for Beethoven but for the Western music repertoire.

The music of the Classical Period (think Haydn and Mozart) emphasized clean, clear melodies with emotional restraint. The forms of this period (the string quartet was born, and the symphony's form was "finalized") dictated the music. Not to disparage the music of this time, but a concert-goer could usually rely on following the music with a knowledge of these musical forms.

With the third, Beethoven broke the mold, on many levels. Nicknamed the "Eroica" (for Heroic, not Erotic as I first thought), the symphony opens with themes which describe the struggles of the hero (Beethoven himself, battling deafness?), with the first movement ending in triumph. The second movement is a funeral march. The third movement is meant as a rebirth. The fourth and final movement...well, it is a bit of an enigma. It contains a fair amount of humor, sweetness, and light that doesn't seem to fit the title "Eroica".

But as to those broken molds; with this symphony, Beethoven ushers in the beginnings of the Romantic era, stressing that music should be about self-expression (and hoping the audience shares the emotions). Now, form can be bent and molded to fit the needs of the composer. The work is a bit longer than was the custom of the time, though Beethoven will write even longer symphonies in the future.

For another example, in the Classical symphonic form, the first movement would be the longest and most complex, the second movement slow and lyrical, the third movement a dance form (minuet and trio, so actually a couple of dances), and then finally a fast fourth movement to send the audience home humming closing themes. Beethoven has replaced the minuet and trio with a scherzo (something he actually did in his Second Symphony). Most of his symphonies will no longer have a slow movement, though he will have one in his Ninth (which breaks down so many walls anyway).

All this was written at a time when Beethoven was suffering depression and anger over his impending hearing loss. It seems that, when the going gets rough, Beethoven gets bright in his compositions.

(Note: Monday, December 22 of this year marks the bicentennial of the debut of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (along with a handful of other works). So, pull out those CD's and give them a listen. I've already written about that evening and those two symphonies, check that out. Also, since I've already blogged about them, I will write about the Fourth and then skip to the Seventh.)