Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven

BORN: December 16, 1770 (he was baptized on the 17th), in Bonn, then an independent electorate (now Germany)

DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: Summer and fall of 1802

WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1803, at an all‑Beethoven concert given at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna

US PREMIERE: April 22, 1843. George Loder conducted the New York Philharmonic in its first season

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1916. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2016. Pablo Heras-Casado conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; with timpani and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins
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, who articulated the tragic accents of the Third Piano Concerto, could turn from such visions 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.” Beethoven had been up since before five, when Ferdinand Ries had discovered him in bed copying out trombone parts. Ignaz von Seyfried, the newly appointed young conductor at the Theater an der Wien, was recruited to turn pages for Beethoven during the concerto, “but heaven help me!” he writes, “that was easier said than done. I saw almost nothing but empty leaves at the most on one page and on another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me and scribbled down to serve as clues for him. He played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.” Well might it have been a jovial supper. The reviews, which would be very mixed, weren’t in yet; on the other hand, the box office, at double and triple normal ticket prices, had been terrific.
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 either; 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, though it is easy to hear that it has a model in Mozart’s Prague Symphony. (The opening Adagio of the First Symphony follows Haydn’s practice of compressing much dramatic—or at the very least, surprising—event into few notes.) The Adagio molto in 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 fortissimo 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, actually using 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
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.

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