Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro vivace e con brio
II. Allegretto scherzando
III. Tempo di Menuetto
IV. Allegro vivace
Composed 1812. First performance: 27 February 1814, Redoutensaal, Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, conductor.
In the years since Beethoven’s era there has evolved an idea that his odd-numbered symphonies are weighty and serious in nature, while the others are light and somewhat inconsequential. If there is a work that casts doubt on this belief, it is the Symphony No. 8, for while it may be short, spirited, and in a major key, it is one of Beethoven’s most mature and inspired masterpieces. Had he not written Symphony No. 9, the Eighth could very well function as a fitting conclusion to the collected symphonies.
The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were sketched almost simultaneously near the end of 1811, with the former being completed in May and the latter in October of 1812. The premiere of the Eighth had to wait until February 27, 1814, at a concert that included performances of the already immensely popular Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory. Not surprisingly, it was over-shadowed by the other works and received a less than enthusiastic reception, to which Beethoven grumpily responded, “That is because [the Eighth] is so much better!” Subsequent performances proved its popularity and staying power.
The mood of the work in no way mirrors the conditions in the composer’s life at the time of its composition. He had just quarreled with a good friend, Malzel, and was depressed by the mortal illness of a brother. Out of this mood, and perhaps as a release from his inner turmoil, came a work of brightness and good humor. Each movement is marked by a degree of unconventionality. The first sets the tone for the entire work by loudly proclaiming the theme without benefit of an introduction or even an opening chord. The second movement is Beethoven’s humorous attempt to mend his friendship with Malzel, inventor of the metronome. With monotonous regularity, the orchestra “tick-tocks” its way through the movement while accompanying a little tune originally written as a canon to the text “Ta-Ta-Ta, Lieber Malzel.” The third movement is a vigorous minuet with a contrasting trio for two horns and clarinet. As for the finale, perhaps Sir George Grove described it best, saying:
The finale… is the great movement of the symphony. It is pure Beethoven in his most individual and characteristic vein, full of those surprises and unexpected effects, those mixtures of tragedy and comedy, not to say farce, which make his music so true a mirror of human life, equal in his branch of the art to the great plays of Shakespeare in his – and for the same reasons.