Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beethoven's 8th Symphony: That Old Odd/Even Conundrum

People often make the comment – I’m not sure where it began – that Beethoven’s “even-numbered symphonies” are not as great as his “odd-numbered symphonies.”

I never understood that “not as great” – not as popular, maybe, but certainly not “not as good.” Greatness may be difficult to define and is often confused with size and scope as well as popularity. And in the Symphony No. 8, we have two problems to fit that concept of greatness: the work is not built to a heroic scale like the 3rd or 5th Symphonies, geared toward public appeal like the 7th or the epic grandeur of the 9th (but then nothing else really is). In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have the ground-breaking innovation of the 1st that so startled the classical music world when they first heard it in 1800 (a new century, a new age).

We tend to forget there are no other “great symphonies” from this time period that we can reasonably compare Beethoven’s symphonies to. If anything, Beethoven was rarely typical of his time. His style had grown out of the Classical Era of his teacher’s generation and the Romantic Era did not begin on January 1st, 1800, when other composers decided “okay, this is what we’re going to write like, now.”

Beethoven was one-of-a-kind – not just in the history of Western classical music. And his symphonies are – unlike many lesser composers who wrote series of works fitting particular patterns – also highly individual, with their own intrinsic personalities. Just like children.

And just like children, perhaps not all of them grow up to become irrefutable masterpieces, for one reason or another. And if the 2nd, 4th and 8th Symphonies of Beethoven did not achieve the popular status of their companions – the 6th, the “Pastoral,” is always an exception, speaking of individualities – they cannot be dismissed as not being chips off the old block.

When the casual listener thinks of a composer writing a piece, it’s often assumed that piece was written in isolation, in the heat of inspiration (Beethoven, with his wild eyes and even wilder hair, is the epitome of an artist working under the influence of inspiration) and with an eye toward posterity. But this isn’t always the case.

Bach, essentially, wrote for Now – his cantatas for specific Sundays in the church calendar, the Well-Tempered Clavier as teaching pieces for his sons, the concertos and orchestral suites for public concerts at Zimmermann’s Coffee House where he conducted the Collegium musicum, the closest thing Leipzig had to a local symphony.

Mozart and Haydn composed their symphonies and string quartets and operas for the audience of their day and if certain works survived to win favor with more audiences in wider locations, so much the better. Not every work set out to be a masterpiece, more original than the last.

It may sound derogatory to consider composers like Bach, Mozart and Haydn as craftsmen but this was often how they and their age viewed them – employed by the nobility or the church to produce works of art that were as much a part of their patrons’ ownership as any painting or palace, something to impress the neighbors with, to put it bluntly. Part of Prince Esterházy’s fame not only within the Austrian Empire but across Europe in general was that he employed Haydn who wrote these wonderful symphonies that were all the rage in places like Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London.

That began to change at the very end of the 18th Century – or, to round things off, around 1800. It could probably be blamed on the “equality” inspired by the French Revolution as much as the changes brought to everyday life by the no less influential Industrial Revolution, a time where artists in general became part of the general free market economy.

And around this same time, composers went from creating a huge inventory of new works – Haydn’s 104 symphonies, for instance – to concentrating on only a few. After Mozart arrived in Vienna where symphonies were not as popular as concertos, in those last ten years he wrote fewer symphonies (in fact only three) but more concertos because, frankly, there was more of an audience for them and that meant more money.

Mozart wanted his freedom to create so he went to Vienna in 1781 to seek his fortune and ended up dying young, buried in a pauper’s grave. That’s what we’re led to believe. But all through that short life, Mozart was trying to find aristocratic employment. When no one, for whatever reasons – mostly due to his father’s meddling, it is believed – wanted to hire him, the 25-year-old Mozart decided to move to Vienna and become a free-lancer, basically, rather than put up with the backwater provinciality he suffered in Salzburg where he was, quite literally, kicked out by an annoyed boss.

Reading his letters and following contemporary accounts, it’s not hard to believe that Mozart was difficult to get along with – not just his sense of idealism, as we regard it today, but in his lack of diplomacy dealing with the aristocrats he needed to court. And Beethoven was very much in the same mold, whether we regard this as egotism backed up by their genius or just in their inability to behave the way society expected them to.

Especially in Beethoven, posterity created this image of the heaven-storming Titan and therefore the sense that if the heaven-storming symphonies like the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th fit this image, consequently, the “other” symphonies – from the gentle pastoral 6th to the more abstract 4th and 8th – were times when Beethoven felt the need to relax after such Herculean struggles.

Unlike many composers – who write one piece and then go on to the next – Beethoven worked on several compositions at the same time. Judging from his sketches, whether he was consciously working on them concurrently or not, some works were often conceived in the process of composing another one. Themes or ideas might be put aside, inappropriate for this piece but perhaps more suitable for a different work, only to take shape later. But it’s also clear that Beethoven was fully capable of compartmentalizing his creativity to have various burners firing, more or less, at once. Yet it’s amazing how different these works, sharing a common gestation period, might be from each other.

We tend to forget, today, that in the 18th Century, a composer might produce a dozen concertos or a half-dozen string quartets in a set, not individual pieces later grouped together for convenience (Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos being an exception). Haydn would plan six string quartets where each one was to have its own individuality but also fit particular expectations – different moods, different stylistic details – which Beethoven followed in his first set of quartets, Op. 18: there is one in a minor key, the dramatic one; there is a more lyrical one, one that is more symphonic in scope (meaning it deals more with developmental aspects of the form), one that is more “concertante” in style (essentially a violin concerto with the accompaniment of the other three players) and so on. This is one way a composer could “individualize” collective works and in a sense, it kept a composer, even returning to a particular form or genre again, from writing sequels the way Tchaikovsky did in his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies (since he is often accused of writing the same symphony three times).

For Beethoven, we could assume the challenge was to always be original; in Tchaikovsky’s defense, we should think of it as finding a successful model (whether it resonated with the audience or with the artistic soul) that could be expressed in different ways. After all, would it be any less fair to say Tchaikovsky – or Mahler or Shostakovich – wrote their own 5th Symphonies or rewrote Beethoven’s 5th their way?

And does it matter?

To read more about Beethoven’s 8th, continue at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog, here. Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing this work at concerts this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. Kush Desai10:11 AM

    This is a wonderfully insightful article. Beethoven's 8th has always been one of my personal favorites.