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Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

Mature composers, having mastered their craft and proved their most pressing points, often revert to a certain classicism and restraint, as if to show that cool logic can be as convincing as the whitest of passions. That seems to be the case with the Eighth Symphony, “my little symphony in F,” as Beethoven fondly put it. Like the Sixth Symphony, it is in F major, which Beethoven considers a bright, untroubled key. Rhythmic ostinatos are nearly as ubiquitous as in the Seventh, but here have a more restful effect.

The symphony opens in ¾, with a main theme of such assurance that, when Beethoven simply abandons it with a couple of chordal exclamation points and an empty bar, you have no idea what he has in mind to do next. The second group then begins in the passive and quite “wrong” key of A major, then lifts into the more appropriate key of C. But by now the pauses and rubatos have begun regularly to throw the simple F and C major into pensive distant harmonies, and whatever conservative elements there may have been to the movement recede from our attention.

The second movement is an Allegretto scherzando in B flat, with a scampering theme in the strings accompanied by staccato chords in the winds. Beethoven works through a catalogue of playful devices over the course of three strophes, and thus one never has much sense of being in a slow movement. Doubtless for that reason, he next chooses not to offer a scherzo but rather to cast the third movement in a Tempo di menuetto. Its effect, however, is more like a Rhineland waltz than a Viennese minuet and trio. At the cadences the position of the downbeat is obscured by the brass and timpani to comical effect; the trio consists of duo work in the horns and woodwinds over music-box triplets in the cellos.

The big movement here is the last, Allegro vivace, a spirited romp where triplet accompanying figures, both in eighth notes and in quarters, consistently challenge the duple structures for precedence. The second theme, dolce and legato, touches on the distant key of Ab before arriving in C major; the first subject returns as though we were dealing with a rondo, only to settle into a brief development. Out of the waddling octaves in bassoon and timpani emerges a recapitulation that seems not quite certain it should be there, nor, when it finishes, where next to go. Beethoven then charges into an extensive coda, as long as everything that has come before, with an important new thematic figure, and far more complex harmonically than the true development was—it has a statement of the main theme in F-sharp minor, requiring a change of key signature. Brass and timpani insist that the E-sharp of the minor key is actually the tonic F, and succeed in redirecting this digression to its proper though still merry end.

Take a moment to look back on Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre before the valedictory you know to be coming up next: how systematically he has progressed through the opportunities of the genre, how cleverly he has paired his last four works in it, with what variety he has explored the implication of key and meter and form. Now he takes ten years off to mull things over and to experiment with other genres; when he returns to symphonic composition, whatever is let of his Classical urge will be gone forever.

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