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How Nine Symphonies Made Their Mark

May 16, 1999|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The nine Beethoven symphonies define their genre with an unmatched finality. Probably nothing is more readily identifiable to the average listener than the opening three-shorts-and-a-long of the Fifth or the exaltation of the "Ode to Joy" finale of the Ninth, and symphonic composers ever after have been inspired and intimidated in equal measure by the canonic nine (Beethoven also wrote a "Battle" Symphony commemorating Wellington's victory at Vittoria and left a 10th symphony unfinished at his death).

No icons at their birth, these works seemed highly original forces of revolution to contemporaries. Although not explicitly a cycle, Beethoven did work on some symphonies as pairs, twins of opposition almost. The composer's exhaustively studied sketchbooks and drafts reveal an often intertwined evolution of ideas and techniques, and the later 19th century generally saw the nine as a cyclic and purposefully patterned alternation of dramatic, conflicted odd numbers and lyrical, cheerful evens.

Symphony No. 1: Begun at the dawn of the 19th century, Beethoven's first completed symphony was ready to premiere April 2, 1800. The composer accepted the basic forms and instrumentation he inherited from the late symphonies of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809), but placed his own stamp on the very first, unexpectedly dissonant chord.

Reaction was almost universally unfavorable--"a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity," wrote one critic. But the rousing music quickly changed the tide of opinion, and five years later another critic would hail the First Symphony as a "glorious production, showing a wealth of lovely ideas, used with perfect connection, order and lucidity."

Symphony No. 2: Beethoven worked on his Second Symphony intermittently through 1801-02, bringing it out on a then-typical monster concert--it included the First Symphony, the C-minor Piano Concerto and the oratorio "Christ on the Mount of Olives"--on April 5, 1803. The slow movement was much admired, but the rest was condemned for its length and use of wind instruments. "A gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die," as one critic described it.

It's worth noting, however, that we can find such criticism precisely because Beethoven was the most distinguished composer of his time, whose new works were avidly anticipated and reported on throughout Europe. The Second Symphony impressed another critic of the era with "the powerful fiery spirit that blows throughout this colossal production, by the wealth of new ideas and their almost completely original treatment, as well as by the composer's profound musical science, so that one may predict that the work will live and be heard with ever renewed pleasure when a thousand pieces now . . . acclaimed will have long gone to the grave."

Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica": With this symphony, premiered in Vienna on April 7, 1805, Beethoven firmly broke most connections with the 18th century traditions still apparent in his previous symphonies. The hero of the subtitle was originally meant to be the pre-imperial Napoleon, but in reality could be understood as the composer himself.

In this work Beethoven created a radical new symphonic ideal. The novelty was quite clear to his bewildered contemporaries--"a daring, wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty. . . . The work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion," wrote one critic. Although the value of the inventions was not at first understood, thematic development, harmony and instrumentation were all liberated from conventional restraint and found to have unlimited expressive possibilities.

Symphony No. 4: Beethoven had begun sketching ideas for a turbulent symphony in C minor as early as 1804, but he broke off work on it in 1806 to try a gentler symphony in B-flat. This Fourth Symphony had its premiere at another spring concert in Vienna, in March 1806.

Though something of a throwback to classical tradition, the new work was subject to the usual mixed reaction, with composer Carl Maria von Weber writing a mocking allegory in which the various instruments of the orchestra complain about the difficulty of their parts--they are silenced when the manager threatens to make them play the "Eroica."

Symphony No. 5: After the detour that became the Fourth Symphony, Beethoven completed his Fifth in 1808 and premiered it on Dec. 22 with the also just-completed Sixth Symphony. Another radical work adhering to the new "Eroica" ideal, the Fifth is the locus classicus for thematic integration. At the premiere, the numbering of it and the Sixth were reversed. That Beethoven subsequently changed their numbers suggests to some he was consciously developing the pattern of odd-even contrast in the order of the nine symphonies.

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