Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

The Fidelio Orchestra played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 at their 21 February concert.

By the time Beethoven ventured into symphonic music in 1800, five years had passed since Haydn’s last attempt at the genre and twelve years had elapsed since Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Then as now, music is a performative art, quite unlike the trade of painting, for example, and it requires a specific occasion and engaging people among both performers and audience. Harder still is the awkward and abstract form of the symphony, where one feels neither the intimacy of chamber music nor the exciting dramas of an opera house.

No wonder that for his First Symphony Beethoven, conscious at this early stage of his career of the importance of a good reception by his audience and the practical implications for the players, carefully followed the Haydn-Mozart template of instrumentation, formal structure, and harmonic schema. Had Beethoven stuck with this model, we certainly wouldn’t have the Master’s later works that sit among the greatest achievements of humankind. But Beethoven, being Beethoven, never restricted himself to the comfort zone of the past. As with his piano sonatas and string quartets, we see in Beethoven’s symphonies a clear thread of development, a distinct style curated through a lifetime’s endeavour.

The Second Symphony shows exactly such signs of departure from the past. Although composed only two years later than the First Symphony, it is a work with “both retrospective and prospective characteristics”, as the great Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon put it. The retrospective aspects, of course, refer to the still-classical instrumentation and the largely unchallenged sonata form. The prospective aspects include, among other things, much stronger dynamic contrasts and more intense rhythmic changes.

The  Heiligenstadt Testament  was written around the same time as the Second Symphony, at a point when Beethoven was suffering from depression resulting mainly from his increasing deafness.

The Heiligenstadt Testament was written around the same time as the Second Symphony, at a point when Beethoven was suffering from depression resulting mainly from his increasing deafness.

As early as the introduction section of the first movement, we already feel the sort of keen thrill that is rare with Haydn or Mozart - and that little motif foreshadows the opening of the immortal Ninth Symphony, composed much later. It is as if the Master is making the statement that music doesn’t always have to sound nice and elegant; his chief aim is to express himself as freely as possible.

The second movement is marked Larghetto, an unusually slow tempo for Beethoven. When he later rearranged the symphony for piano trio, he would change the tempo marking to ‘Larghetto quasi andante’ (‘andante’, meaning ‘at a walking pace’, is a faster tempo than ‘larghetto’), which indicates that, to Beethoven’s mind, the beautiful melodies should flow like a river instead of drifting slowly in stagnant water.

For the third movement, Beethoven replaced the minuet-trio, typical in a Haydn or Mozart symphony, with a scherzo-trio. You might think this is trivial, but it opens the Pandora’s Box of structural inventions that Beethoven later championed. A scherzo is a much looser form than the minuet, and usually faster as it doesn’t have to take into account the practical rhythm that accompanies an actual dance. All this allows the Master more room to unleash his intense, and sometimes savage, ideas.

We hear in the coda of the finale another example of sharp dynamic contrast, where the pianissimo tremolo in the strings is followed by a sudden fortissimo outburst of the full orchestra. This, curiously enough, is reminiscent of a passage in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, where the orchestra and choir deliver a tour de force after a sustained pianissimo. Moments like this are always immensely intriguing, for one cannot but think of some dramatic interpretation of the volcanic eruption. Is this a display of the composer’s determination to conquer his own fate despite all life’s trials and tribulations?

And that leads us to the context of the Second Symphony’s composition. Exuberant and cheerful as it sounds, the piece was in fact written during an intensely emotional period of the composer’s life. In early 1802 Beethoven was seeking medical advice for his failing hearing and decided to spend a six-month holiday in Heiligenstadt, a small town to the north of Vienna. On the surface, it would prove to be one of the most productive holidays the composer ever enjoyed; but Beethoven grew more and more distressed by a sense of isolation and bitterness as a consequence of his increasing deafness.

In October of the same year, Beethoven wrote the heartfelt document now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he expressed his suicidal inclinations, only to overcome them through his resolve to fully realise his art. And overcome them he did. Beethoven would emerge from this sad episode and, having mastered all major instrumental genres of the Classical style, he announced his departure from the past and the arrival of the age of Heroism.

If, as the convention goes, in his Third Symphony (‘Eroica’) Beethoven shrugs off completely the hefty tradition we call Classicism, the Second Symphony is a preview of that ‘new path’.