Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

At thirty-two years old, Ludwig van Beethoven decided once and for all not to take his own life. For the remainder of his fifty-six years, both his life and his art personified the contrast between the depths of human despair, squalour and abjection, and the height of humanistic triumph over mortal circumstance. To keep the two sides in balance required a personality containing both an extreme seriousness and a serious jocosity.

The complimentary sides of Beethoven’s personality are visible in the forms of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies. They were conceived at the same time, completed one after the other, and played on the same concert (along with the famous Beethoven clunker Wellington’s Victory, which when pressed by critics, he defended with the faintest praise imaginable: “What I shit is better than anything you could ever think up!”) While the Seventh is heroic, expansive and almost confrontationally rhythmic, the Eighth is short, funny and almost Classical.

That the work is short requires no explanation: it usually clocks in at under half an hour. That it is funny, or at least might have been funny to its first audiences, requires a little more context.

The effect of the very opening is something like being tossed into a swimming pool. There is no introduction, as is common both in Beethoven and in Classical symphonies; and although he originally sketched it with two introductory bars to establish the tonality, he later got rid even of those. Instead of a usual eight-bar phrase constructed from two units of four bars, the theme is a lopsided twelve-bar phrase containing three units. Although the tonality holds firm for a little while, disagreements between section and “wrong” notes quickly creep in. Sections of smooth woodwind chords alternate with rude rhythmic interruptions in the strings. When the theme comes back for a recapitulation, it has been amended to the expected eight-bar phrase.

The second movement is historical record of one of the most significant musical innovations of Beethoven’s lifetime (of which Beethoven himself wasn’t the source): the metronome. Johann Maelzel, whose ear-trumpets Beethoven also used, pirated the idea of the pendulum metronome from Diedrich Winkel, and Beethoven was among the first to use and celebrate them. The second movement is reminiscent of the metronome click– until the very end, when the metronome goes haywire. Many musicians have speculated that Beethoven himself may have had a faulty model, so the joke has only deepened with time.

That the symphony is somewhat Classical appears in its third movement, which is a minuetto referencing Haydn. As a young man Beethoven had been instructed to “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”; perhaps he liked to remind listeners that he had done so, no matter how much more he ended up also doing. The final movement is a roaring Presto which gives the impression of someone hurrying out the door, excitedly pressing onwards to the next big thing.

As a pair of symphonies, the Seventh and Eighth have an unquestionable winner in the court of public opinion: the Seventh is played much more today, and was received better during Beethoven’s lifetime as well. Beethoven himself knew exactly why: when a student asked him why the Seventh was more popular, he answered, “Because the Eighth is so much better.”