Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

For most concertgoers, Beethoven’s Second Symphony is probably the least familiar of his nine works in this genre. Yet, in performance one is invariably left surprised, thrilled and amazed at what a truly unusual work it is. If the Second is somewhat eclipsed by some of Beethoven’s later, still mightier works, it nevertheless makes a compelling case for itself as a masterpiece in its own right.

Just consider some of the special qualities of this symphony: It crashes in with an immensely powerful outburst from the full orchestra, only to dissolve into utterly gracious lyricism from the woodwind choir. An opening so startling can only herald a work of vast scope and grandeur, and indeed, this symphony turned out to be longest written to date, a record Beethoven himself promptly broke again with his next symphony, the Eroica. The first movement itself is, at about thirteen minutes, the longest single symphonic movement written up to that time; the slow introduction alone lasts longer than some entire movements by Mozart. One can perhaps sympathize with an early critic who proclaimed the symphony to be “a crass monster, a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to expire and though bleeding in the finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.” And as if all that weren't enough for the first audience ever to hear this symphony (at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on April 5, 1803) the program also contained the premieres of the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The First Symphony was also thrown in for good measure.

Then there is all that rough humor, especially in the final two movements. Humor in music was nothing new, of course, but Beethoven’s brand of it - something robust, hearty, even rough and coarse at times, rather than just gently playful - definitely marked him as a musical maverick. Dramatic surprises and absurd incongruities abound. In the Scherzo, for instance (incidentally, the first appearance of this title in any symphony), note the asymmetrical arrangement of loud and soft presentations of the three-note motive (“ha-ha-ha”) as it is tossed about the orchestra, sometimes in shouts, sometimes in whispers - an unsettling effect. Or what about that bizarre “hiccup” that opens the finale and becomes almost something of an obsession throughout the movement?

The orchestral forces required for this symphony do not exceed those for the First Symphony (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, plus the usual strings). But the sonority is noticeably fuller, richer, more powerful. The Second’s emotional horizons are broader, its breadth grander, its energy boundless. If Beethoven’s First Symphony ushered in a new century, (first performed April 2, 1800), then the Second (first performed exactly three years later) paved the way for a whole new world for the symphony, a world that in many ways today still looks back to Beethoven for its models.

Beethoven wrote this rambunctious, joyful and extroverted symphony during one of the most emotionally troubled periods in his life. He had begun sketches for it in 1801, but most of the work was done in 1802, particularly during the summer and early fall while he was staying in the village of Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna. One of his doctors had sent him there in hopes that the peace and quiet would improve a medical condition that was becoming ever more serious, and which caused Beethoven no end of anguish. He was going deaf, and the fact was now inescapable. Could the great Beethoven, the musical genius who held Vienna in thrall through his virtuosic piano playing, his flamboyant conducting and his boldly modern music, be the subject of some cruel cosmic joke? The composer, just 32 at the time, poured all his grief and torment into the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a document of searing intensity and hyper expressive emotional tone. But the Second Symphony, written concurrently with the Testament, reveals an artist immensely capable of separating the circumstances of his outer, physical life from his inner, spiritual world to produce a life-affirming creation in a period of depression and fearful anxiety.

“Everything in this symphony is noble, energetic, proud,” wrote Berlioz. “The introduction is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner” One of the moments that must have impressed Berlioz is the granitic power of the descending D minor arpeggio, played fortissimo by the entire orchestra in unison - an early precursor of the Ninth Symphony. When the Allegro con brio finally arrives, there is indeed brio aplenty, but the main theme is little more than an ornamented version of the tonic triad. Yet this and the perky, march-like second theme (also little more than a glorified triad) are sufficient material for Beethoven to create an entire movement, using the bits and pieces of these subjects as molecular building blocks in endlessly fascinating ways. Virtually every measure contains a fragment of one of these two main themes.

The serene beauty of the Larghetto brings to mind some of Schubert’s loveliest creations. The long, glowing first theme is initially heard in two parts, each presented in alternation by strings, then woodwinds, in rich, four-part harmony. Further melodic ideas are also shared by strings and winds. Berlioz described the movement as “a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure.”

For the scherzo, let us quote once again the ever- imaginative Berlioz. There is “the youthful ardor of a noble heart, in which the most beautiful illusions of life are preserved untainted. The composer still believes in love, immortal glory, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies! Hearing these various instruments disputing over fragments of a theme which no one of them plays in its complete form, hearing each fragment thus colored with a thousand nuances as it passes from one to the other, it is as though you were watching the fairy sports of Oberon's graceful spirits.”

The finale is set in motion with a subject that incongruously combines a hiccup, a growl, a burp and a fairy dance, all within the space of a few seconds. The comic possibilities for development of such material are manifest, and in one sense this finale might be regarded as another scherzo. Tremendous energy and nervous tension are further distinguishing features, as is the enormous coda that accounts for something like one third the length of the movement. Beethoven packs plenty of surprises into the symphony’s final pages, including unexpected outbursts, harmonic detours, improbable pauses and irrepressible good humor.

Robert Markow