Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (complete)
performed on August 16, 2017 at Staunton Music Festival
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia
SMF Chamber Orchestra on period instruments, conducted by Carsten Schmidt
violins: Antti Tikkanen (concertmaster), Jacob Ashworth, Martin Davids, Fiona Hughes, Gesa Kordes, Maureen Murchie, Minna Pensola, Guillaume Pirard, Airi Yoshioka
violas: Kyle Miller, Jason Fisher, Kathleen Overfield-Zook; cellos: James Wilson, Jan Mueller-Szeraws, Carl Donakowski
double bass: Heather Miller Lardin, Erik Higgins; flutes: Mary Boodell, Immanuel Davis; oboes: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens
clarinets: Ed Matthew, Nina Stern; bassoons: Keith Collins, Stephanie Corwin; trumpets: Kris Kwapis, Kathryn Adduci
horns: Todd Williams, Ian Zook; timpani: Brian David Smith
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
By any other composer, the Symphony No. 8 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) would be considered an epochal achievement. But framed as it is by the powerful Symphony No. 7 and the titanic scope of Symphony No. 9, it has largely been overshadowed. The work was written quickly in the summer of 1812, and Beethoven was quite fond of the work despite its relatively smaller proportions. Its moods vacillate between cheerful and sarcastic. Little evidence will be heard of the painful personal situation in which the composer—growing more and more deaf each day—now found himself. This was the summer of the “Immortal Beloved” letter, Beethoven’s pitiful, “heart-on-his-sleeve” confession of love to an unnamed individual.
The first movement dives right in without introduction, and the entire exposition is equally straightforward. The F major theme rushes past in a flurry only to get stalled on a chromatic (B-flat minor) seventh chord. The transition begins from the equally unlikely key of D major, and a series of diminished seventh chords further delay the arrival of the second theme in C, which combines a thumping martial front end with a lyrical continuation and boisterous coda. The development proceeds through the orbit of closely related keys, using the motivic cell of the first theme to guide movement toward numerous tonal areas before getting stuck upon D-flat major. That key helps clear the path for a retransition to C and ultimately a somewhat disguised recapitulation. Given how many times we have heard the first theme throughout the development, it’s hard to trust that its reappearance now in F major is the true recap. Moreover, the second theme follows but in the abnormal key of the subdominant. A valedictory coda rounds off the movement, and a final soft echo of the main theme leaves are wry smile on the face of those sensing Beethoven’s play with sonata-form expectations.
That mood continues into a mincing second movement marked Allegretto Scherzando. The entire movement is very short and essentially monothematic. By virtue of the main keys (B-flat and F), as well as motivic similarities, listeners may hear echoes of the great F-Major “Pastoral” Symphony written four years earlier. And indeed this symphony is often described as being fairly pastoral in mood, although lacking the overt program that Beethoven attached to Symphony No. 6. In comparison to the “Pastoral”, the composer called No. 8 his “little F major symphony,” apparently referencing both its scale and extending a paternal hand to show his attachment to this overlooked work.
Interestingly, Symphony No. 8 has no true slow movement. Following the Scherzo, Beethoven positions a rustic Minuet that seems to have stepped straight out of a collection by Haydn, Beethoven’s former teacher. The Minuet gives a couple solos to the bassoon, and during the Trio section horns and clarinets take charge.
Beethoven compensates for the smaller scale of the two inner movements with a powerful, expansive finale. That finale opens in hushed tones, with the strings whispering out a fast thematic idea. It explodes out of nowhere into a riotous, galloping passage for full orchestra. Listen for the disruptive C-sharp. Beethoven hints that he will then repeat this entire passage. But a few key changes signal a development of the idea is actually underway. The texture grows less uniform, and passages of counterpoint carry the music in totally new directions. At one point, Beethoven slides deceptively from C to D-flat for a new lyrical episode; recall the important role played by D-flat in the first movement and its rude appearance in the first theme of this movement (spelled as the enharmonic C-sharp). Later in the finale, the C-sharp/D-flat refuses to go away, instead giving life to a variation on the main theme in F-sharp minor! With so many sideline excursions and contrapuntal episodes, little wonder that Beethoven surrounds us with pages of F-major cadences to force home the conclusion.
© Jason Stell, 2017
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