INKPOT#90 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: BEETHOVEN The Symphonies – An Inktroduction

BeethovenBEETHOVEN
and His Symphonies

(including the Tenth and Battle Symphonies)The classical symphony without Beethoven would be like encountering the English language without Shakespeare. From his early forays into this field as a young artist, he cultivated and shaped it, through a creative process of experimental composition and groundbreaking high waters, into its fullest maturity. Symphonic composers after Beethoven have continued this artistic exposition, many also producing masterworks in their own right, but in the concept, quality and perfection of the form of the symphony, none can be said to have surpassed Beethoven.

Like Bach‘s fugues and Haydn’s string quartets, Beethoven’s symphonies can be seen as an artistic diary of his creative life. As a 22-year-old arriving in Vienna in 1792 from his native Bonn, he was already entering into a field dominated by two supremely great composers, Mozart, who had just died the year before, and Haydn, who was then at the height of his career – himself having just returned from London in triumph with his first set of Salomon symphonies. It would not be until 1800, when he was well-established as a virtuoso pianist and composer, that Beethoven deemed himself ready to challenge his predecessors on the high ground of the symphony and the string quartet.


Beethoven’s First Symphony was composed in 1799 and premiered at the Imperial Court Theatre on 2nd April 1800. It was dedicated to Baron van Swieten, the arbiter of musical taste in Vienna and not coincidentally, patron of Haydn and Mozart. While the influence of his two musical predecessors could be felt – the well-manicured fastidiousness of Haydn coupled with the lyricism of Mozart, there was also something else present which was distinctly Beethoven.

Right from the opening ambiguous dissonant seventh chord that begins the symphony, audiences must have known that they were in for something different. The journey that followed was nothing less than a superbly balanced act between tension and release, interspersed with brilliant examples of musical wit. The Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung was coolly receptive – “considerable art, novelty and wealth of ideas” – although it was critical of Beethoven’s excessive use of winds.


Beethoven followed the success of the First Symphony with his Second in 1802. It was also in this year which saw Beethoven coming to terms with the tragedy of his increasing deafness, for which he had retired to the countryside on the advice of his doctor in the hope that it might improve his hearing. On October 6th, he vented his feelings in what is now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he resigned himself to the irony of fate and consolidated his resolve to carry on with his creative work in spite of his handicap:

O you my fellow-men, who take me or denounce me for morose, crabbed, or misanthropical, how you do me wrong ! You know not the secret cause of what seems thus to you. For six years past I have fallen into an incurable condition, aggravated by senseless physicians, year after year deceived in the hope of recovery, and in the end compelled to contemplate a lasting malady, the cure of which may take years or even prove impossible. O how should I then bring myself to admit the weakness of a sense which out to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the greatest perfection. Double pain does my misfortune give me, in making me misunderstood.

George Grove, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (Dover 1898)

However, Beethoven did later relent and – this takes some of the Romantic sheen off the young composer as an angry young man – after venting his emotion thus, he sealed up the paper which was eventually not discovered until after his death. Nonetheless, it is all the more remarkable that the Second Symphony betrays nothing of the composer’s mental anguish.

The work is carefree and joyous, while at the same time filled with uniquely Beethovenian cadences and dissonances, which (one can now imagine) led audiences of the time to confusion and irritation. A critic – there’s always one in every age – described it extravagantly as “a monster, a rampantly wild and writhing dragon that does not want to die and (in the finale) before drawing its last breath, angrily beats its tail back and forth.” Thankfully, this suggestive description did not lead to the symphony being stuck with any colourfully adverse nickname.

Beethoven
When the Eroica (“Heroic”) came along, it upended the musical world as everyone knew it, departing from the consolidation of Beethoven’s first two symphonies and making a dramatic conquest of musical territory on its own terms. It is in this work that the true voice of Beethoven is first heard.

Such a dynamic impulse was provided by nothing less than the stimulus of post-Revolutionary France, where Napoleon Bonaparte, under the force of arms, had conquered and established a number of republics embodied after the model of classical Rome, a political ideal to which Beethoven was strongly attracted.

The symphony was initially written in honour of Napoleon, but in May 1804, upon hearing that Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven went into a rage and tore the title page up which bore Bonaparte’s name. The title page was rewritten with a new name and rather more ambiguous dedication: Sinfonia Eroica, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.

But the symphony owes its “heroic” nature to more than just its title: the music was of such character that the development of its musical ideas was so drawn out until the work was nearly twice as long as any previous symphony. In addition to the furious exposition of the first movement, the second movement contained a sombre funeral march which is based on French influences of the period, particularly Cherubini’s Hymne funébre sur la mort du Général Hoche of 1797. The last movement is a set of orchestral variations taken from Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus.

The Tearing of the EroicaTitle page from Eroica manuscript

“…and with these words he seized his music, tore the title-page in half, and threw it on the ground.”

“The copy of the Eroica which is preserved in the Library of the ‘Gesellschaft der Musikfreude’ in Vienna is not an autograph, though it contains many notes and remarks in Beethoven’s own hand; and it is not impossible that it may be the identical copy from which the title-page was torn off.”

Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies.
Groves, Dover 1898, pp.55.

“The autograph copy of the Symphony has disappeared. But Beethoven’s personal copy (a copyist’s manuscript, which Beethoven used for conducting and which contains many corrections and additions in Beethoven’s own hand) has survived… But the second line of the copyist’s title with the name “Bonaparte” was scratched out so vigorously, apparently with such passion, that a gaping hole was ripped in the page. This eloquently mutilated title page and the well-tumbed, marked-up score it covers may still be consulted in the library of the Viennese Gesellschaft der Musikfreude.”

Guide to Symphonic Music.
Downes, Walker & Co 1976, pp.92


A pattern emerged that Beethoven often followed the creation of a “dramatic” symphony (Nos. 3, 5, 7) with a “lighter” one, the result of his working on two or more pieces at the same time. The Fourth Symphony, in fact, came about in very busy times for Beethoven. The 1804-05 period found him at work on the opera Fidelio, the Triple Concerto, the Appassionata sonata as well as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, so much so that after the opera had been completed and work resumed on the Fifth in 1806, Beethoven had, in the interim, managed to complete the slender Fourth Symphony in response to a commission of 350 florins from Count Franz von Oppersdorf.

Apparently the nobleman had heard the Second Symphony and wanted another like it for himself from the esteemed composer, so eager was he that he agreed to every demand for payment, even advances for unfinished work. While it is clear that Count Oppersdorf had expected to receive the C minor symphony, Beethoven had already agreed to dedicate this and the F major symphony to Prince Lobkovitz and Count Razumovsky respectively, which is why he wrote an entirely new symphony for Oppersdorf as compensation.

Beethoven, it must be said, did not seem to have expended much effort or delay in this work. It is also thematically linked via a falling third to the two abovementioned symphonies, thus forming a musical bridge between the middle trio of symphonies. The first line in the slow introduction of the Fourth, for instance, traces in its opening notes the same melodic outline as the famous rhythmic motif that opens the Fifth.


The French influence inherent in the Third was also evident in the Fifth, which really needs no introduction. It can be regarded as the most famous symphony ever written, with its ominous four-note opening figure that dominates through the entirety of the work and the harmonic struggle in the minor key to its triumphant culmination in the major.

In fact, the Fifth was the next symphony to be worked on after Beethoven had completed the Third (although the Fourth popped up in between). Perhaps this was just as well, as Beethoven felt that audiences of the time were not ready for two futuristic symphonies in succession. The fact was that, until the Fifth appeared, few minor key symphonies ended in the major mode, let alone undergo the titanic struggle to get there. Indeed, it is the journey and not the destination that makes this work powerful.

The work was premiered at a marathon concert in December 1808 which included the Choral Fantasia (looking forward, as it does, to the Ninth Symphony), Fourth Piano Concerto, Sixth Symphony and excerpts from his C minor Mass, also marking the end of a prolific six-year period. Interestingly, at this concert, the numbering of the Sixth and Fifth Symphonies were changed, as were the Seventh and Eighth some years later, before Beethoven settled on the current numbering order in the final catalogue.


The Sixth Symphony, nicknamed Pastoral, was written simultaneously with the Fifth and both were finished and premiered at the same time; yet, such is Beethoven’s compositional skill that each could not be more different from the other.

Where the Fifth was full of struggle, in the Sixth there is only the bucolic sound of the composer’s happy feelings on arrival in the countryside, a pleasant scene by a brook, a rustic country dance which is interrupted by a passing thunderstorm, which gives way to a shepherd’s hymn of thanksgiving. The work, cast in five movements instead of the usual four and employing a varied orchestration from movement to movement – a forerunner of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, perhaps ? – is a picturesque depiction of nature, with a smiling and sunny air of felicity and relaxation.

Nevertheless, Beethoven defended his work against the idea of a literal, closed representation of such impressions and pictorials through music – and initially even rejected the inclusion of programmatic hints to aid understanding of the work. After all, writing music in the pastoral style was not new (as evidenced, for example, by the pastoral sinfonias so abundant in the music of Handel and Bach).

Despite the composer’s injunction against the literal interpretation of his music, there were several occasions in which the Pastoral was performed with scenery, and even in pantomime and action.At a performance on 22 June 1829 at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket, for example, the symphony was dramatically staged with six French actors and a numerous corps de ballet at a benefit concert for a certain Mr Bochsa. (The same gentleman would later, on 23 June 1830, also perform Beethoven’s Battle Symphony, “dramatised expressly for the occasion with Guards from Waterloo on the stage, etc.”)

Even as late as 7 February 1863, the Pastoral was staged in Düsseldorf as “An Illustration of the Pastoral Symphony”, with groups of farmers, peasants and even a village parson against background scenery.

In Beethoven’s music sketchbooks, we can even find an explicit formalization of the nature-music relationship in the telling sentence: “Murmur of the brook. The more the water, the deeper the note.” This would later become two solo cellos playing in 12/8 time at the start of the slow movement.


The Seventh Symphony, famously described by Wagner as “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, returns to the intense, driving rhetoric of the Third and Fifth. Its premiere in December 1813 also marked the arrival of public recognition of Beethoven as the greatest living composer.

Although it was the first symphony he had written in several years since the marathon concert of December 1808, some of the abundant musical ideas found in this work came from elsewhere: the dactylic theme of the allegretto first appeared in the slow movement of the third Razumovsky string quartet; the trio section of the third movement was based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn.

The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung gushed that it was “the richest in melody, the most satisfying and understandable of all Beethoven’s symphonies”. Ironically, this performance marked Beethoven’s final public appearance as a conductor. So popular was the work that it was performed again four days later at a charity concert which also featured the Battle Symphony (Wellington’s Victory), a fundraising potboiler which Beethoven had written for a mechanical contraption called the panharmonicon. Both “symphonies” were so successful (with the Seventh claiming the greater share of fame than Battle, obviously) that they were repeatedly performed in subsequent concerts.

Symphony No.10 in E flat, Op. post. More than ten years would pass before Beethoven’s crowning achievement, the Ninth Symphony, appeared. It was never intended as a final symphonic statement, and plans for a Tenth Symphony had been sketched before the composer’s death in 1827.

In 1988, the first movement of this projected symphony was reconstructed by musicologist Dr Barry Cooper, and given its modern premiere on 18 October 1988 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Walter Weller. The Asian premiere was later given by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Choo Hoey on 23 September 1989.


The Eighth Symphony was composed alongside the Seventh, although its first performance did not come until two months later, in February 1814. Sandwiched between repeat performances of the Seventh and Battle Symphonies at its premiere, the Eighth encountered a rather lukewarm reception, in the shadow of its sibling – a clear instance of poor programming strategy, if nothing else.

The AMZ complained that the work failed to cause a “furore” (!) because of this “hasty miscalculation” rather than “any weakness or artistic shortcoming”. After this false start, the Eighth continued to face difficulties finding acceptance in the concert hall (which has persisted right up till today).

The Eighth may be far smaller in size and less popular when compared to the Seventh but that only tells part of the story: when asked, Beethoven had personally remarked that the Eighth was “so much better” compared to his earlier symphonies. Indeed, the Eighth Symphony is more sophisticated in its use of musical humour, and also more adventurous in pushing the limits of orchestral virtuosity, especially in the final movement.

Click here for the Inktro to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony!

The Big Ten

No. Key Opus Title FP Conductor Dedicatee
1 C 21 2 Apr 1800 Wranitzky Baron van Swieten
2 D 36 5 Apr 1803 Beethoven Prince Carl Lichnowsky
3 E-flat 55 Eroica 7 Apr 1805 Beethoven Prince Lobkowitz
4 B-flat 60 Mar 1807 Clement Count Franz von Oppersdorf
5 C min 67 (Fate) 22 Dec 1808 Beethoven Prince Lobkowitz and Count von Razumovsky
6 F 68 Pastoral 22 Dec 1808 Beethoven Prince Lobkowitz and Count von Razumovsky
7 A 92 8 Dec 1813 Beethoven Moritz, Count Imperial von Fries
8 F 93 27 Feb 1814 Beethoven
9 D min 125 Choral 7 May 1824 Beethoven King Friedrich Wilhelm III
10 E-flat (post.) 18 Oct 1988 Weller

Benjamin Chee is still waiting for someone to perform the Battle Symphony. Live.

647: 3.2.2000. up.11.2.2000 Benjamin Chee

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