Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.
The Second Symphony was composed during the summer and fall of 1802; its first performance took place at an all‑Beethoven concert given at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on April 5, 1803. The first complete performance in this country was given on April 22, 1843, by the New York Philharmonic in its first season, George Loder conducting. Alfred Hertz led the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the work in February 1916. The most recent performances, in February 2011, were conducted by Marek Janowski. The Second Symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; with timpani and strings. Performance time: about thirty-four minutes.
For Beethoven, 1802, the year of the Second Symphony, was the beginning of a period of unparalleled fertility. He was aware of its being a special time. “For a while now I have been gaining more than ever in physical strength and in mental strength, too,” he wrote. “Every day I come closer to my goal, which I can sense but don’t know how to describe.” To another friend he wrote: “I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I now write I often find myself working on three, four things at once.” Energy for work and for life was limitless. If, inescapably aware of his advancing deafness, he knew the despair that speaks in the will he wrote at Heiligenstadt in October 1802 (“as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered—so likewise has my hope been blighted”), he also knew the state of mind in which he could say that he would “seize fate by the throat.” And the composer who sketched the wild new music of the Fifth Symphony could also turn from such a vision to the lyricism, the wit, the easy and playful energy of the D major Symphony.
Beethoven introduced this work in Vienna on April 5, 1803. The Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives had their first performances on the same occasion. The rehearsal that day had gone nonstop from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. At that point, Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky sent out for cold cuts and wine, stoked up the exhausted players and singers, and then asked them to run through the oratorio “just one more time.”
The reviews of the concert were mixed. The Second Symphony was compared, not to its advantage, with the already popular First. One critic commented that “the First Symphony is better than the later one because it is developed with lightness and is less forced, while in the Second the striving for the new and surprising is already more apparent.” But however he assessed it, the reviewer was not wrong in noting a world of difference between the Second Symphony and the C major of 1799‑1800. We think usually of the Eroica as Beethoven’s great breakthrough symphony, and we are not wrong in that; nonetheless, the distance between the Second Symphony and the Eroica is not bigger than that between the First and the Second. At the time of the Second Symphony Beethoven spoke of setting out upon a fresh path. Artists often say such things, for purposes of propaganda or even to cheer themselves along, but this declaration of Beethoven’s is one to take seriously.
The introduction at once suggests new possibilities of breadth and range. In sheer size it has no precedent. This slow entrance-way into the Second Symphony is not only spacious but immensely varied, encompassing large and bold harmonic excursions, as well as comprehending a range of musical characters from pliant lyricism to the stern D minor unison outburst that so startlingly anticipates the Ninth Symphony. After mounting suspense, the introduction spills into a quick movement of extraordinary verve, even with something fierce in its high spirits. The music proceeds in a mixture of innocence and unpredictability. It is also laid out on a broad scale, something we might not immediately notice because of the very quick tempo.
The leisurely Larghetto brings a sweetness of accent that is new in Beethoven’s language. In the First Symphony, the composer still called his very fast one‑in‑a‑bar third movement a minuet; here he admits for the first time in a symphony that he is writing a scherzo—a joking sort of music—and he actually uses that word in his tempo/character designation.
The finale begins with a gesture of captivating impudence, a two‑note flick up high followed by a rather dismissive growl down below, and it has splendid comic possibilities. In the first and second movements we have watched Beethoven work on an unabashedly grand scale. The scherzo is by comparison compact, and our first impression of the finale is also of highly compressed procedures
We would probably be quite satisfied if the finale met our expectation of coming quickly to a bright close after the recapitulation. We would then have heard a symphony of proportions something like those of one by Haydn, with third and fourth movements far briefer than the first and second. But Beethoven has something different in mind. Propelled at first by a little theme that, slyly, he had been careful to keep out of much prominence, a coda gets under way and grows like the genie out of the bottle. It grows in fact to a point where it accounts for a little more than one third of the entire movement. (Ten years later, in the Eighth Symphony, the greatest symphonic comedy not by Haydn, Beethoven gives us the tail wagging the dog.) The Eroica is open revolution; the Second Symphony is revolution within the conventions of late eighteenth-century high comedy.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
RECORDINGS: For the Symphony—Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony) | Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS) | David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova) | George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra
READING: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books) | Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton) | Beethoven, by Barry Cooper (Oxford, Master Musicians Series) | The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson) | Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press) | Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)
DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.