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Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 36
early 1802; first performed on 5 April 1803

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Movement 1: Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Larghetto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 4: Allegro molto

Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 36
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.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2007

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