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Hyperion Records

CDS44301/5 - Beethoven: Symphonies
CDS44301/5
Recording details: Various dates
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Bill Lloyd
Engineered by Matt Parkin & Mike Hatch
Release date: September 2007
Total duration: 335 minutes 30 seconds

GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2008
SUNDAY TIMES CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK
CLASSIC FM CD OF THE WEEK
SUNDAY TIMES BEST OF THE YEAR
'SUPERSONIC' AWARD, PIZZICATO MAGAZINE
SUNDAY TIMES CLASSICAL CD OF THE YEAR
THE TIMES CLASSICAL CD OF THE YEAR
DAVID MELLOR'S CD OF THE YEAR

'Hyperion's set is that early evening Beethoven cycle caught in recordings of remarkable intimacy and focus … it is a set I would happily put into the hands of any aspiring young music lover … Beethoven conducting and playing doesn't come much better than this' (Gramophone)

'So magnificently exhilharating an account' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Mackerras's rapport with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is exceptional, leading not only to stylish performances but also to conveying an infectious sense of enjoyment … a set that takes some beating for all-round satisfaction' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'Anything that Mackerras does is worth listening to: he is one of the pioneering generation of early-music performers in the decade or so before early orchestral instruments were available, and who can now let his experience with them enhance his work with main-stream orchestras' (Early Music Review)

'If there has been a more thrilling and elemental Beethoven cycle than this new Charles Mackerras set made in the last two decades, I certainly haven't heard it. This is a great cycle, and one that leapfrogs straight into the pantheon of indispensable recordings of these works … this is a Beethoven red in tooth and claw, a questing revolutionary who took the symphony by the scruff of its neck and produced a series of nine astonishing masterpieces as a consequence … the revelations of the Hyperion set make it even more desirable … what survives the transfer from concert-hall to disc is the towering authority and searing urgency of these performances … in the first two symphonies, Mackerras catches the urgency and rhythmic life of Beethoven's music with inspiring vigour … the SCO plays with total conviction, and attention to detail means that inner parts do much to energize the music, to light it in from within … an immediacy and sheer musicality that is enthralling … if you already have one Beethoven cycle—or a dozen of them—I would still urge you to investigate the marvellous new set on Hyperion: it is one of the most compelling and imaginative to have appeared for many years, and it is certianly one of the front-runners among those currently available. I can't think of another I'd rather hear … there's not a weak link in the cycle, the playing is both red-hot and immensely stylish, and Mackerras's conducting has a fire, life, expressive intensity and volcanic energy that let us rediscover these great works anew. It's simply magnificent' (International Record Review)

'The latest thoughts of this always stimulating and searching Beethovenian are welcome indeed … his tempi are wonderfully fleet, without sounding driven … Mackerras allows the music to unfold so naturally that you are hardly aware of the conductor's presence—although the wealth of details that seems to rise organically out of the perfomances, rather than being artificially highlighted, reveals the wisdom of a master interpreter … this is a Beethoven cycle to live with' (The Sunday Times)

'As uncompromising and lived-in Beethoven as anyone could hope to hear' (Classic FM Magazine)

'This set of the Beethoven symphonies may well become a standard by which to evaluate both past and future performances—it certainly will be for me … this set receives my highest recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)

'In Mackerras's experienced hands, the music palpably speaks of the dawn of Romanticism—as much in the flare of brass and grain of strings as in the supple 'spring' and energy he summons from it … the Ninth reveals what a superior musician Mackerras is, as he creates a joyous sense of ferment' (Financial Times)

'This Beethoven Five was a seamlessly integrated interpretation and performance which refreshed the best known of all symphonies. That's why it was special. This performance was suffused with the shock of the new' (The Herald)

'The opening of the Pastoral is eager and mobile, the first movement of the Fifth Symphony quite aerobic. The tenor solo in the Ninth Symphony (one case where Beethoven's metronome marking probably is a mistake) is giddily apt to Friedrich von Schiller's text. Again and again, the ear is caught by a little stretching of pace for rhetorical effect, or by an elegant shaping of an inner voice. Both orchestras respond eagerly and well, as does the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in the Ninth Symphony. The Ninth, which drives to an electrifying end, also has a fine vocal quartet in Janice Watson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Stuart Skelton and Detlef Roth. Sir Charles was 80 at the time of these recordings, and an introductory note by festival director Brian McMaster describes these as 'a valediction to a lifetime of making music'. If so, they're a splendid coda to a distinguished career … a top choice for a Beethoven cycle on CD' (The Dallas Morning News)

'In short, there are no missteps, nothing that isn't stylish, idiomatic, and fully in keeping with the spirit of the music. The sonics are well-balanced and realistic … this is certainly a Beethoven cycle to live with … the music-making has a spontaneity and sense of occasion that remain quite special. I have no doubt at all that when future generations name the great conductors of the latter half of the 20th century, Mackerras will stand high on the list, and this set is fully worthy of him' (ClassicsToday.com)

'This recording manages to capture the sense of excitement and sometimes shock that these works must have engendered in their first audiences. That makes this a set to be treasured' (bbc.co.uk)

Symphonies
CD1
Larghetto  [10'05]
Scherzo: Allegro  [4'47]
Allegro molto  [6'12]
CD2
Allegro con brio  [16'40]
Adagio  [8'18]
CD3
Allegro con brio  [7'04]
Andante con moto  [8'44]
Scherzo: Allegro  [4'55]
Allegro – Presto  [10'42]
CD4
Allegretto  [8'03]
Allegro con brio  [8'47]
Allegro vivace  [7'16]
CD5

‘A decisive interpretation, reinforced by a near-flawless and totally committed performance, and driven by an energy and vitality that conductors half the age of the venerable octogenarian Mackerras could only dream of emulating. The confidence and challenge intrinsic to the great symphony bounded off the page, flowed through conductor and orchestra and filled the auditorium, whose near-capacity audience was gripped. That grip remained fast for the duration: through the pulsing virility of the first movement and an amazing account of the second where Sir Charles and the SCO at once maintained a swift momentum while creating an illusion of unhurried expansiveness, crept through a stealthily-introduced scherzo and, in a wonderfully controlled flow of tension and release, exploded into a finale whose effect was as cathartic as it was climactic. This Beethoven Five was a seamlessly integrated interpretation and performance which refreshed the best known of all symphonies. That’s why it was special. This performance was suffused with the shock of the new’ (Glasgow Herald)


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
During his early years in Bonn, Beethoven jotted down some ideas for a symphony in C minor; and in 1795, when he was in his mid-twenties and beginning to establish himself in Vienna as both composer and virtuoso pianist, he made more extensive sketches for a similar work in C major. Neither project ever came to fruition, and it was not until 2 April 1800 that Beethoven made his official debut as a symphonist. The C major Symphony (No 1) he conducted on that occasion formed part of the most important concert he had given in Vienna thus far. Also on the programme were his Septet Op 20, whose popularity was to dog him in later years, and one of his first two piano concertos, as well as a Mozart symphony and extracts from Haydn’s The Creation. Beethoven also treated the audience to some of his already legendary keyboard improvisations.

Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 famously begins with a series of ‘sighing’ dissonances leaning away from the home key, and it may have been the peculiar sonority of these opening bars, in which the strings provide only pizzicato support, that led a critic at the work’s premiere to complain that the orchestra sounded too much like a wind-band. Following the slow introduction, the Allegro con brio begins quietly, and in an atmosphere of deliberate understatement. The main subject’s military flavour seems to owe a debt to the greatest of Haydn’s C major symphonies, No 97, and Beethoven further stresses its march-like character in the coda, where trumpets and drums come into their own with a series of fanfares.

The slow movement’s opening pages have staggered thematic entries in the manner of a fugato; and when the cellos add a new ‘running’ part to the texture at the start of the reprise, the music manages miraculously to sound even more translucent. Another felicitous piece of scoring is the ‘tapping’ timpani rhythm that runs through the exposition’s closing bars. In a characteristically Beethovenian gesture, the rhythm is appropriated by the strings, fortissimo and in a distant key, at the start of the central development section.

For all the defiant originality of its slow introduction, perhaps the symphony’s most prescient movement is the third—not really a minuet at all, despite its label, but a piece in Beethoven’s dynamic, thrusting scherzo style. As for the finale, it opens with a celebrated joke. A dramatic held note played fortissimo by the full orchestra seems to herald some event of high seriousness, but all that ensues are scraps of a C major scale, hesitantly put together in slow-motion by the violins. The scale is fully assembled only at the start of the Allegro molto e vivace, where it turns out to form the upbeat to the main theme. The music’s wit and brilliance again owe something to Haydn, though there is no shortage of thoroughly Beethovenian gestures—not least, the dramatic outburst near the start of the central development section. Towards the end, Beethoven cheekily introduces a march of toy soldiers, before bringing the work to a rousing conclusion.

By the time he completed his Symphony No 2, in the early months of 1802, Beethoven already had an impressive tally of compositions to his name. They included his first two piano concertos, as well as more than half of his total output of piano sonatas, the first five of his ten violin sonatas, and the six string quartets Op 18. Even so, those present at the symphony’s first performance, on 5 April 1803, must have been taken aback by the music’s grandeur, its coiled-spring tension and the unprecedented violence of its dramatic gestures. Here was Beethoven for the first time flexing the full force of his symphonic muscle.

One remarkable aspect of the work is the sheer scale of the coda in its outer movements. In the opening Allegro con brio, the coda features extremes of dynamic contrasts, with the violins and violas on their own twice quietly giving out a fragment of the main theme, only to be dismissed angrily by a fortissimo outburst from the full orchestra. After a solitary oboe and bassoon have met with the same treatment, the fortissimo is maintained solidly for more than thirty bars, while the basses stride chromatically upwards in long notes as though wearing seven-league boots. Finally the lower strings launch into a ‘running’ figure while the violins indulge in spectacular leaps, and trumpets and drums add spiky off-beat accents. It is an assault-course of a kind that no composer had attempted before on this scale.

Following the exuberance of the opening movement, the slow movement provides a welcome aura of serenity. This being the symphony it is, however, the calm atmosphere is by no means unbroken, and the latter half of its central section incorporates a fiercely intense development of the opening theme, before order is restored with the reprise of the theme itself.

The scherzo makes its joke out of fooling the listener as to where its tutti explosions are going to occur; while the scarcely less gruff trio, with its flowing, wind-orientated scoring, seems to look forward across the years to the parallel section of the ninth symphony. Gruffness is the keynote, too, of the finale, with its nervously abrupt main theme. Mindful of the theme’s erratic behaviour, Beethoven is careful to give the remainder of his material a much more regular cast. Despite a brief return of the main theme in the home key roughly a quarter of the way through its course, the piece is not a rondo: that return indicates instead a structural shortcut—a hint at a complete repeat of the sonata-form exposition, after which Beethoven proceeds directly to the development section, with a plunge into the minor. Beethoven invoked a similar deliberate deception in the finale of his eighth symphony, and the first movement of the ninth, and the procedure was one that exerted an influence on a host of composers to come, including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák.

At the time Beethoven left his home town of Bonn to settle permanently in Vienna the French Revolution was barely more than a year old. Beethoven must have found himself largely in sympathy with the ideals that had given rise to that momentous event, though in the years that followed, his attitude towards the rapidly rising figure of Napoleon was at best ambivalent. In 1802 he decided to compose a symphony in honour of the Frenchman; but when, some two years later, Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage, and seizing the title-page of the Symphony No 3 ‘Eroica’, tore it in half and flung it on the floor. On the copyist’s score (Beethoven’s original has not survived), the composer struck out the words ‘intitolata Bonaparte’ with such fury that he tore through the paper; and when the work appeared in print it bore a rather different legend: ‘Sinfonia Eroica composta per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand’ uomo’ (‘Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’). The description, firmly locating the work’s subject in the past, could be taken as referring to Napoleon before he betrayed his ideals; but the presence of a funeral march as the symphony’s second movement suggests that Beethoven had a more generalized tribute to heroism in mind.

In marked contrast to Beethoven’s first two symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ dispenses with a slow introduction, but the opening movement is nevertheless conceived on a vast scale. The main subject provides a famous instance of Beethoven’s long-range harmonic planning. The theme’s confident surface is undermined almost immediately by the introduction of a ‘foreign’ note which, together with the restless syncopation of the violins above it, casts a momentary shadow over the music. Only much later, at the start of the recapitulation, does Beethoven seize on the ambiguity of that same note in order to take the music in an entirely new harmonic direction.

For a piece of such large dimensions, the first movement’s exposition is remarkably concise; but with the central development section Beethoven expands his canvas in unprecedented fashion. Following the first overwhelming climax, with strident discords hurled out by the full orchestra, a series of stamping chords on the strings gradually recedes, to raise the curtain on a new theme in a remote key. The theme reappears in the coda; and it is in the coda, too, that the movement’s main theme at last achieves a stable form, sweeping its way through the closing pages in a vast arc while trumpets and drums superimpose a fanfare which allows the music to reach a conclusion of overwhelming grandeur.

Another famous moment in the opening movement is the approach to the recapitulation. This is the point in his symphonic movements where Beethoven often favoured a moment of hushed mystery, followed by an explosive outburst at the start of the recapitulation itself. In the ‘Eroica’ the suspense proves too much for the second horn, which enters prematurely with a fragment of the main theme in E flat major before the violins’ mysterious tremolos have actually resolved onto that key. Even Schoenberg thought the resulting harmonic clash was a mistake, though it is one that propels the recapitulation with tremendous force.

The second movement is not Beethoven’s only funeral march. Some three years earlier he had written a similar movement, significantly entitled ‘Funeral March on the Death of a Hero’, for his piano sonata Op 26—a relatively straightforward affair with a middle section in the major followed by a reprise of the opening march theme. The ‘Eroica’ Symphony’s slow movement appears at first to be following a similar plan: after the consolatory C major middle section, the main theme returns—but even by this stage the piece has run considerably less than half its course. The reprise is actually restricted to a mere ten bars, before Beethoven launches on an austere fugato, and once this extended section has reached an end the music plunges unceremoniously into a new key, while horns and trumpets thunder out a repeated-note fanfare. As the intensity subsides, cellos and basses introduce a ‘winding’ figure that had previously formed a plaintive pendant to the main theme, and Beethoven proceeds to provide the full-scale reprise he had so conspicuously withheld following the earlier C major passage. At the end, the music appears to dissolve in grief with halting scraps of the main melody dying away to nothing—an effect Beethoven was to invoke again in his Coriolan Overture, also in C minor.

The scherzo begins in highly original fashion, with the strings playing staccato and pianissimo; and there is a further surprise in store for the trio, where the orchestra’s three horns—an entirely novel piece of scoring—come into their own, in a ‘hunting’ piece par excellence. Following the reprise of the scherzo the brief coda begins with distant drum-taps, before the hunting-horns make their appearance again, to bring the piece to a forceful conclusion.

Some three years before he began work on the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Beethoven composed music for a ballet entitled The Creatures of Prometheus. The ballet’s final apotheosis contains a theme Beethoven later used not only in a set of orchestral contredanses, but also for a much more ambitious set of variations for piano, Op 35, as well as the finale of the symphony. The symphony’s last movement bursts in a with a series of rushing scales and emphatic chords, as though to announce some portentous event. What ensues instead is one of Beethoven’s most outrageous jokes, with the pizzicato strings quietly giving out the bizarrely empty-sounding bass-line of the ‘Prometheus’ theme to come. Two variations on the bass-line follow, before the theme itself at last makes its appearance. However, from this point on the finale is no straightforward set of variations; instead, Beethoven welds variations and fugal developments into a weighty symphonic argument. Near the end, an extended slow variation seems to recall the mood of the funeral march’s middle section, until it is eventually cut short by the return of the rushing scales from the movement’s beginning, now in a faster and more emphatic form. This time the scales herald exactly the sort of triumphant event they so strikingly failed to announce the first time round.

Beethoven spent the autumn of 1806 in Upper Silesia, as a guest at the country retreat of one of his most generous patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and it was there that he carried out the bulk of the work on his Symphony No 4. The symphony was dedicated to Lichnowsky’s friend Count Franz von Oppersdorff, who was affluent enough to maintain a private orchestra, and this may explain not only the new symphony’s Classical proportions, but also its relatively modest scoring. The orchestra it requires, with only a single flute among the woodwinds, is the smallest to be found in any of the nine symphonies.

The symphony’s slow introduction is set mostly in the minor. This mysterious Adagio, which only gradually gropes its way towards the light, gives no hint of the brilliance of the music to come, though its halting, detached violin notes may be heard as a version in slow-motion of the Allegro vivace’s main theme. As so often in Beethoven, the most spellbinding moment occurs in the very long and subdued preparation for the onset of the recapitulation. Here, the orchestra is reduced to the violins on their own, giving out the ‘rocking’ figure from the movement’s main subject over and again, in overlapping phrases that leave the music hovering on the brink of a distant key. In a still more mysterious moment the first violins reiterate the rushing scale figure that had first appeared during the transition from the slow introduction to the Allegro vivace, while muffled drum-rolls add atmosphere to the proceedings. The inclusion of the timpani at this moment, with the music still in a remote key, is a highly original stroke. Until the twentieth century, when a mechanism for controlling the tension of the membrane by means of a pedal was introduced, the use of timpani was largely limited to sections of the music set in, or near, the home key. Beethoven, however, overcomes this limitation by treating the fundamental note B flat—the note to which one of his two timpani has been tuned from the outset—as its enharmonic aural equivalent, A sharp. The passage in question is one whose tonality is veiled and ambiguous, and the mysterious timpani rolls find the music poised on the brink of the key of B major. Following this moment, there is a luminous sea-change back into the home key, and a B flat timpani roll underpins the whole of the long crescendo that catapults the start of the recapitulation.

The slow movement is based on one of Beethoven’s favourite types of juxtaposition: a broad, sustained melody unfolding over an accompaniment in a sharply defined, military-style rhythm. The rhythm ceases for the main theme’s luxuriant continuation, with sonorous arpeggios on the strings, as well as for a deeply expressive clarinet melody delicately accompanied by both arco and pizzicato strings; but it returns in the closing bars, where the spotlight again falls on the timpani, which give the rhythm out on their own.

As Beethoven’s symphonic designs grew broader, he clearly felt the need to expand the scope of the scherzo to match that of the surrounding movements. His solution was transform what had traditionally been a tripartite form into a five-part design in which the trio was played twice, between three appearances of the scherzo. In the fourth symphony the design is actually abridged, with the second appearance of the slower trio followed only by a portion of the scherzo’s second half. Both the jagged arpeggio-like shape of the scherzo’s syncopated theme, and the notion of casting the trio as a slower piece predominantly scored for the winds, anticipate the character of the corresponding movement in the seventh symphony.

The bubbling finale is a piece imbued with the spirit of Haydn. A particularly felicitous touch is the ‘running’ bassoon solo which inaugurates the recapitulation, with the explosive orchestral chords of the movement’s opening bars replaced by gentle pizzicatos. The moment is brief, but the bassoon writing is notoriously tricky. In the closing bars Beethoven takes a further leaf out of Haydn’s book by allowing the music to degenerate into pure farce, with fragments of the main theme limply played at half speed, as if the piece were about to collapse altogether, before an abrupt gesture from the full orchestra brings the curtain down.

Beethoven worked on his fifth and sixth symphonies more or less simultaneously, in the summer of 1807, but the two works are as different as could be imagined. To us, Symphony No 5 is the epitome of Beethovenian defiance, and its famous opening gesture seems vividly to conjure up the image of the composer shaking his fist. Yet for Beethoven’s contemporary E T A Hoffmann (author of the celebrated tales) the work embodied the very essence of musical romanticism. ‘Rising in a single climax right up to its end’, wrote Hoffmann in a lengthy review, ‘this symphony displays Beethoven’s romanticism more than does any other of his works, and carries the listener irresistibly into the wondrous spirit world of the infinite.’

One aspect of the symphony that struck Hoffmann forcibly was its inner unity. Even a listener coming to the work for the first time will immediately connect the ‘knocking’ rhythmic figure which runs through the scherzo with the four-note motif of the symphony’s opening bars. The first movement itself is a locus classicus of symphonic unity, with the omnipresent ‘fate’ rhythm acting as an accompaniment to the warmly lyrical second subject. The mood changes again in the recapitulation, where the oboe breaks in to the opening subject with a miniature cadenza of great expressive depth. The oboe’s melody is actually a variant of the bars that precede it, but the contrast is overwhelming.

Behind the slow movement lies the shadow of the double variation design so assiduously cultivated by Haydn, in which two themes—one in the major, the other in the minor—are varied alternately. Beethoven’s design is abridged, with the second theme consisting of little more than a short-lived blaze of C major—as though in anticipation of the ultimate triumph of that key embodied in the symphony’s finale; and following the third variation the C major idea disappears altogether, leaving the remainder of the canvas to be filled with an elaboration of the first theme.

Beethoven had originally intended to have two statements each of the scherzo and trio, followed by the pianissimo da capo, but a last-moment change of heart led him to delete the long repeat of scherzo and trio. He may have feared that the extended form would weaken the symphony’s most revolutionary idea—the interruption of the finale with a further reprise of the scherzo. The change of colour for the return of the scherzo following the trio, with braying horns replaced by delicate pizzicatos, and the atmosphere of hushed mystery maintained throughout, is an astonishingly original stroke. Towards the end, the inner strings sustain a long-held note while the timpani gently tap out a rhythmic figure, before a crescendo of tremendous force propels the music forwards into the finale.

The finale’s emergence out of the shadowy scherzo—and with it the first use in a symphony by a great composer of trombones and piccolo—is a shattering moment, and one whose effect can scarcely be blunted by familiarity. The progress from darkness to light is renewed at the end of the finale’s powerful development section, with the reprise of the scherzo. This time the ensuing C major triumph has perforce to be even more assertive, and it is largely this that necessitates a Presto coda ending with more than fifty fortissimo bars of pure C major—a glorious victory for the forces of light.

‘Recollections of country life, more the expression of feelings than painting’ was Beethoven’s disclaimer on the title-page of the Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’. However, no one hearing the storm movement interpolated between the scherzo and finale could be in any doubt as to what was being depicted. This was by no means the first great work to be inspired by nature and the countryside: if nothing else, Beethoven had before him the example of Haydn’s two late oratorios—The Creation, with its evocations of bird, insect and animal life, and The Seasons, with its own vivid summer storm—but Beethoven’s was nevertheless a pioneering attempt to forge the sounds and moods of nature into a grand symphonic design.

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is a work that proceeds in large waves of sound, with the pace of harmonic change deliberately unhurried, even in developmental sections, and with very little use of the minor. As a consequence of Beethoven’s broad brush-strokes, and to avoid repetition on a large scale, the reprises and recapitulations during the course of the work are elaborately varied; and in this scheme of things the function of the storm is to provide a much-needed source of symphonic tension.

Almost everything in the broadly paced opening movement derives from its initial halting violin phrases, played above a rustic, drone-like bare fifth on violins and cellos. Only the principal second subject, presented in the form of a gradual textural crescendo, provides any real thematic contrast, though even this is short-lived. In the coda the village-band takes over, in the shape of a clarinet solo with a ‘rocking’ bassoon accompaniment.

Just as the opening movement is largely bereft of dramatic incident, so the gently undulating sound of the stream runs almost uninterruptedly through the slow movement. Towards the end, the gurgling of the water pauses for a moment while Beethoven introduces the sounds of nightingale, quail and cuckoo, as portrayed by flute, oboe and clarinets, respectively. Those more literal descriptions of individual bird-calls had been anticipated in the main body of the piece—not least, by the violin trills and ‘chirping’ repeated notes at the approach to the recapitulation.

The scherzo and trio are through-composed—so much so that it is difficult to define where one section ends and the next begins. What we may perceive as the trio is the charmingly syncopated oboe melody, with a bassoon accompaniment restricted throughout to only three notes, as though the rustic player from the coda of the first movement were putting in another appearance. Just as Beethoven seems on the verge of bringing back the scherzo, the pace accelerates, the metre changes, and he introduces instead a ‘stamping’ dance conjuring up a Breughelesque vision of peasants making merry. During the final reprise of the scherzo, the revelries become more frenzied, until at their climax the music is interrupted in dramatic fashion by the sound of the approaching storm.

Beethoven’s masterstroke is to begin his storm pianissimo, with a sense of pent-up tension, before the thunder unleashes its violence in earnest. Twice the storm approaches and recedes, with the shrill sound of the piccolo adding pungency to the second climax. As the rumble of thunder at last dies away, the ‘raindrop’ patter of the second violins’ opening bars is transmuted into a broad hymn-like phrase in the major—an offering of thanksgiving, before a gentle rising scale on the flute leads directly into the finale.

The flute’s scale lands the music firmly on the key of C major, and it is in that key that the clarinet gives out a preliminary version of the finale’s main theme, while the violas provide a pastoral drone on their two lowest open strings. As the clarinet’s melody is taken over by the horn, Beethoven superimposes a second drone effect on the cellos, this time anchored on the home note of F. As a result, dominant and tonic harmonies are momentarily sounded together, producing an effect which sets the finale in motion in an atmosphere of rustic charm. The entire symphony, indeed, is one that seems to grow upwards, from its bass-line; and not for nothing does an early sketch for the slow movement, bearing the title of Murmeln der Bäche (‘Murmuring of the brooks’), contain the remark: ‘The bigger the brook, the deeper the sound.’

The seventh and eighth symphonies were composed in rapid succession, between October 1811 and October 1812, and the two seem to be if not siblings, then at least first cousins. One feature they share is the absence of a genuine slow movement. In the eighth symphony, the second movement is an Allegretto with a strong scherzo element. It is followed not by an actual scherzo, which in the context would have been superfluous, but by an elegant and old-fashioned minuet—the only such piece in Beethoven’s symphonies. In the Symphony No 7 the exchange of roles between the two middle movements is rather more involved. The second movement is again an Allegretto, but one that is unexpectedly written in the symphony’s home tonality—albeit in the minor, rather than the major. The scherzo, in its turn, appropriates the key we might well have expected for the slow movement of a work actually in A minor. The scherzo is, in fact, in F major—the only instance in Beethoven’s symphonies of a piece of its kind that is not in the work’s main key.

Perhaps it was the lack of a later slow movement that led Beethoven to begin the work with the longest of all his symphonic slow introductions. The introduction itself contains two fully developed ideas, the first of them punctuated by rising staccato scales whose pulsating rhythm is to provide the generating force for what is one of the most rhythmically motivated of all Beethoven’s works; and the second being a lyrical theme played by oboe, and later flute. The following Vivace, on the other hand, is dominated throughout by a single sharply defined rhythmic figure. Its climax is reached in the coda, where a winding chromatic phrase is repeated over and over again by the lower strings, while above it the remainder of the orchestra gradually accumulates a crescendo of shattering power.

The famous second movement is a piece with a curiously ‘closed’ feel. Not only does it begin and end with the same sustained woodwind chord gradually dying away, but the variations that form its core unfold by a process of superimposition, with the ‘fatalistic’ rhythm of the theme itself running inexorably through all the accumulated layers. Even the contrasting episode in the major is underpinned by the same rhythmic figure in the basses, and only a hushed fugato passage following the return to the minor creates the sense of a more open design.

The third movement is one of Beethoven’s expanded scherzo designs, with two appearances of the slower trio, and a coda in which the trio’s material makes a brief return before being cut off by an abrupt conclusion in the scherzo’s tempo. As for the finale, it is carried irresistibly forwards by its swirling phrases, whose cumulative energy is unsurpassed by any of Beethoven’s other symphonic finales. Its structure is based on a deliberate deception. The regular cut of the themes—complete with internal repeats—lends them an unmistakably rondo-like aspect; but the movement turns out to be a fully developed sonata form instead. Mozart had written similarly ambiguous finales on occasion—not least, in his G minor Symphony No 40—but Beethoven carries the procedure further, and incorporates rondo-like episodes into his development section, too.

The summer of 1812 found Beethoven for the second year in succession recuperating from a period of relatively poor health in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. He was clearly going through a personal crisis, and on 6 July he wrote his famous letter addressed to his ‘Immortal Beloved’. But if Beethoven was in low spirits, his mood could hardly be gauged from the ebullient Symphony No 8, which he began to sketch out at this time. In comparison with the remainder of Beethoven’s later symphonies, the dimensions of its first three movements are quite modest; but its finale is a piece of epic proportions, and—for all the wit embodied in its main subject—one of the composer’s most powerful symphonic utterances. Not since the fifth symphony had he placed the centre of gravity of the work as a whole so firmly in its last movement.

In marked contrast to the seventh symphony, there are no preliminaries here: the Allegro vivace e con brio begins immediately, and in confident mood, with its main theme given out by the full orchestra. Following the second subject, the exposition’s final moments introduce a new unison ‘rocking’ motif with its upper and lower notes an octave apart, and the same rhythmic motif threads its way through the first stage of the central development section. A similar subject is to be found in the finale, and perhaps it was this that gave Beethoven the highly original notion of having his two timpani tuned an octave apart in the latter movement.

The second movement, with its ‘tick-tock’ accompaniment, has the lightness and grace of a ballet, though its ending is disconcertingly blunt—as if the music had fetched up in the wrong key. If the minuet that follows has a heavier tread, its trio is an elegant serenade-like piece with prominent parts for the first clarinet and the two horns.

In the ‘Eroica’ Symphony’s opening theme, Beethoven had introduced a ‘foreign’ note whose function and meaning became clear only at a much later stage. The finale of the eighth symphony contains a more spectacular use of that same alien note. As the shimmering main theme dies away to almost nothing, an unexplained C sharp blares forth—whereupon the theme bursts out fortissimo still in the home key, as if to reject what had been no more than a rude interruption. Not until the start of what is perhaps the most colossal coda Beethoven ever wrote does the C sharp at last succeed in making its mark. Here, the note is hammered out over and over again, with the insistence of the Stone Guest knocking at the door in Don Giovanni, and this time it cannot be ignored: with hair-raising effect, the orchestra plunges into the remote key of F sharp minor, and the home key is not established again without a good deal more hammering.

When Sir George Smart conducted the first, abridged, London performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert given on 21 March 1825, the work was proudly announced as having being ‘composed expressly for this Society’. The RPS had in fact been trying to lure the great composer to London since as early as 1817, when it offered him the handsome sum of 300 guineas on condition that he spend the following winter in London and compose two new symphonies. Beethoven accepted, and even made enquiries as to the size of the orchestra and the acoustics of the hall in which the works were to be performed; and towards the end of that same year he sketched out a preliminary version of what would eventually become the ninth symphony’s opening theme.

At this stage, Beethoven’s symphonic plans were diverted by other projects—among them the Missa solemnis—and it was not until 1823 that he set to work in earnest on what had become a single large-scale symphony in D minor. In the summer of that year he told his patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph that he was writing a new symphony for London which he hoped to finish in a fortnight. But as things turned out, the score was not dispatched to London until the following April, by which time plans had already been finalized for the work to be performed in Vienna.

Various accounts of the ninth symphony’s premiere on 7 May 1824 have come down to us. They differ in detail, but they all tell the same story. The deaf composer, oblivious to his surroundings, had his head buried in his own score, and had to be turned to face the audience at the appropriate moments so that he could witness the tumultuous applause. That applause broke out not only at the end of each movement, but occasionally during the music itself—notably in the scherzo, at the point where the leaping theme is so strikingly assigned to the timpani.

The inclusion of voices in a symphonic work was an unprecedented step, and Beethoven expended considerable effort in creating a suitable context for the appearance of Schiller’s paean to joy. To this end, he decided to preface the actual poem with some words of his own, in which the discordant sounds of the finale’s opening fanfare are forcefully rejected, as being inappropriate for a celebration of the brotherhood of man. This was the only occasion on which Beethoven set to music lines he had written himself, and after several rejected attempts, he settled on a solution that plays on the German words ‘Freunde’ (‘friends’) and ‘Freude’ (‘joy’), and provides a natural transition to Schiller’s poem: ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere!’ (‘O friends, not these sounds! Let us rather strike up others that are more pleasant and more joyful!’). Each of the reminiscences from the preceding movements which follow on from the terrifying fanfares at the start of the finale is interrupted in turn by an angry burst of instrumental recitative. Only once a snatch of the forthcoming finale theme has been heard does the recitative assume a more positive guise.

The symphony begins mysteriously, with the nebulous sound of a bare fifth, out of which a shattering, jagged fanfare gradually emerges—the most far-flung gesture of its kind Beethoven ever conceived. Twice during the course of the opening movement the material of the opening bars makes a return: once, at the end of the exposition, as if to indicate that a repeat is being made (instead, for the only time in Beethoven’s symphonic opening movements, there is no repeat), and again at the start of the recapitulation. On this last appearance the previously mysterious bars appropriate the dynamic level of the fanfare; and immediately before the fanfare itself emerges, the music alights on a shrieking discord, almost as if in premonition of the famous gesture of horror with which the symphony’s finale is launched. This time the jagged fanfare is harmonized, with the downward leaps of violins and violas countered by an ascent—albeit of more restricted compass—in the basses and cellos. The moment, one of the most astonishing Beethoven ever composed, leaves the music hanging in suspension at precisely the point where we would have expected it to regain its stability.

Uniquely in his symphonies, Beethoven places the scherzo before the slow movement—a sequence that will not be found in any of the great symphonic works of Haydn or Mozart. Beethoven may have opted to reverse the traditional symphonic plan in order to avoid placing the unusually expansive opening movement cheek by jowl with the lengthy Adagio. Not that the scherzo is short: it is, indeed, by a considerable margin the most expansive movement of its kind Beethoven composed. It is prefaced with a rhythmically altered version of the first movement’s jagged fanfare, but the main body of the piece has its origin in a fugue theme Beethoven sketched in 1815, at the time he was working on his D major Cello Sonata Op 102 No 2—a work that ends with an actual fugue. As we have seen, Beethoven had already experimented with tuning his timpani an octave apart in the finale of his eighth symphony, but he puts the idea to even more spectacular use here, with the intervention of the solo timpani near the start of the scherzo calculated to make maximum effect. The much shorter trio section in the major, with its extended passages for the wind instruments on their own, transforms the underlying rhythm from triple metre to duple, though the pulse remains the same.

The slow movement is essentially a series of interwoven variations on two contrasting themes. The first theme is a wonderfully serene hymn-like utterance, with the floating melody of the strings punctuated by wind phrases permeated with the sound of clarinets and horns; while in the more flowing second theme the melodic interest passes to second violins and violas. Much as happens in the fifth symphony, the second theme eventually drops out of sight altogether, and it is left to the first to carry the musical argument.

Like the slow movement, the opening section of the finale is written against the background of a variation form. Following the shrilly discordant fanfares and intervening recitatives, and the reminiscences from the previous movements, the famous theme that will be used to set Schiller’s words ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ is heard unharmonized on the cellos and basses. The initial variation-chain occupies fewer than one hundred bars, before Beethoven provides a lengthy transition to a new theme in the key he would have chosen had he been writing a purely symphonic kind of piece. The function of this new theme is defined by the fact that it never reappears: at this stage Beethoven needs to engender the expectation of a repeat of the exposition, in order to maximize the effect of what transpires instead. What actually ensues is a varied repeat, but one of an unprecedented kind. Having served their purpose, the reminiscences are eliminated; the recitatives are now sung, rather than played, and the orchestral variations are replaced with choral variations. There is an analogy here with first-movement concerto form, where an orchestral opening section is followed by an exposition featuring the soloist—except that here that solo section is vocal, rather than instrumental.

In place of the orchestral exposition’s new subject in the dominant key there is now a dramatic interruption, and immediately following the words ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott’ the music plunges into a new key for a passage that confronts the sublime with the sublimely banal, in the guise of a toy march for wind-band, complete with ‘Turkish’ percussion instruments (triangle, cymbals and bass-drum). In Beethoven’s grand sonata design, this marks the start of the development section.

The recapitulation is interrupted by further development, in the shape of a slow movement (‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’). Its sustained theme appears at first to be entirely new, but as things turn out it can be combined with the main theme in the form of a double fugue. The words of this section, together with a vastly accelerated form of its theme, will return in the symphony’s exhilarating closing pages. The fugue itself eventually leads to the coda, where the finale’s events thus far are passed in review: the quasi-slow movement is recalled in a breathtaking Adagio excursion into a distant key (‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’); and the Turkish instruments make a return in the jubilant explosion of sound which brings the symphony to its close.

Misha Donat © 2007

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