Friday, April 13, 2012

Beethoven - Symphony No. 2 In D Major

In Beethoven's day, most music was taught by private instruction. Beethoven had the good fortune to be taught by some of the finest teachers of his era. The first of his teachers that we know about besides his father is Christian Gottlieb Neefe, who thought much of his young student and instilled in him a love for Bach by having Beethoven learn how to play Bach's set of preludes and fugues in  The Well Tempered Clavier.  Beethoven also studied with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an acknowledged master of counterpoint.  Joseph Haydn taught Beethoven for two years and their relationship was strained. Haydn called Beethoven 'The Great Mogul' and Beethoven refused to be acknowledged as a Haydn pupil.  Antonio Salieri also taught Beethoven about vocal composition, especially for opera.

But perhaps the best teacher Beethoven had was experience. At age 14 he was named organist for the Choir of Maximillian Franz, and he also played the violin well enough to be in t he orchestra for the Bonn Opera house for four seasons.  His time as an orchestral musician was no doubt of the utmost usefulness to the budding composer as he rehearsed and played through the operas of Mozart and many others.

Beethoven used that experience to good effect in his first symphony, written in 1799 and first performed in 1800 at a concert that also saw the premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto and Septet.  This was Beethoven's initial concert of works in Vienna. His Second Symphony followed closely behind, as he began writing it in 1800 and finished it in 1802.

He wrote much of the symphony while staying in Heiligenstadt, where he came to terms with his increasing hearing difficulties. The prospects of his growing totally deaf were a hard blow to overcome for Beethoven. He was at the point of taking his own life.  But he came to terms with it and went on to take a different path in his compositions. In some ways, the second symphony was the very beginning of this new path, and considering the state of his mind during some of his stay in Heiligenstadt, the work is remarkable for its confidence and playfulness.

The symphony is in 4 movements:

1) Adagio molto : Allegro con brio - The symphony begins with an Introduction that makes its way to the opening theme, with an outburst in D minor thrown in for good measure.  The first theme is full of energy and spirit with a rapid connecting piece to the second theme. The connecting music that leads to the recapitulation has some of the syncopated off-beat accents that Beethoven was fond of. The development sees Beethoven modulating and varying both the main themes and their accompaniments. The recapitulation is condensed considerably and has a coda added to it.

2) Larghetto -  The second movement is in sonata form, and contains some of Beethoven's most lyrical writing  for the orchestra. It is also rather long for a 'slow' movement, but the sheer beauty of the music and the way it is presented makes it seem shorter than it is.

3) Scherzo : Allegro -  Beethoven's first use of the term 'scherzo' in his symphonies. This movement is a foreshadowing of the originality and rhythmic vitality of the Beethoven that is to come in the later symphonies. The contrast between loud and soft 'makes' the joke in the scherzo and plays a part in the trio also, along with the chattering bassoons and other woodwinds. The scherzo moves briskly along, and seems like it just got started before it is over.

4) Allegro molto -   This is the movement that gave Beethoven's contemporary audiences the most problem. The orchestra begins the movement with a huge 'dip' from G down 12 notes to C.
This was looked upon at the time as bizarre at best and downright crude at worst. There has been all kinds of interpretations concerning this re-occurring rondo theme, even to a modern-day idea that Beethoven was depicting the noises he made due to his poor digestion, that it is a hiccup, belch, or (heaven forbid in a piece of 'serious' music) a fart.  Or it could just have been an attention-getter to make the listeners of the day sit up and take notice. Kind of like a jab in the side to get one's attention. Be that as it may, the entire movement was something of a novelty of the time.

Beethoven was a composer that was always growing, always evolving.  The second symphony is not a revolutionary symphony as was the third, but it was markedly different in tone and expression if not in form. Indeed, the second symphony is as far as Beethoven could go within the confines of the form as known by Haydn and Mozart. To go further, he had to add and expand on the form and technique of the symphony until he made it his own.

A word about the recording in the video. The Academy Of Ancient Music was one of the first organizations that began playing period music on instruments and with methods of the period. They made a name first by exploring medieval and renaissance music, instruments and performing practices. Under their director Christopher Hogwood, they branched out into the Classical era and have given new insight on how the music of Beethoven and other composers sounded in their time. In this recording, all the strings are strung with gut strings instead of wire, the horns are natural horns (valveless), the woodwinds have fewer keys,  tympani have real hide drum heads, the music is played at the standard pitch of the time (lower than modern pitch). As there was no baton-wielding conductor at the time of Beethoven's Second Symphony, either the concertmaster (leader of the first violins), or a leader at the piano or harpsichord lead the orchestra, sometimes both of them shared the duties. So if you can hear a piano in some places of the symphony, it is Mr. Hogwood leading the orchestra per early 19th century performance practice.

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