It’s competition time! In the context of our partnership with IDAGIO, we are delighted to give away ten vouchers for a 6-month subscription to the advert-free version of IDAGIO. To win a voucher, please vote for your favourite Beethoven symphony; ten winners will be drawn at random and the results will be published on Monday 1st June 2020. Below, you will find some background historical information about all symphonies and you will be able to listen to them performed by the COE and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the embedded IDAGIO player. Good luck!
Symphony No. 1
The symphony is clearly indebted to Beethoven’s predecessors, particularly his teacher Joseph Haydn as well as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but nonetheless has characteristics that mark it uniquely as Beethoven’s work, notably the frequent use of sforzandi, as well as sudden shifts in tonal centers that were uncommon for traditional symphonic form (particularly in the 3rd movement), and the prominent, more independent use of wind instruments.
The premiere took place on 2 April 1800 at the K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg in Vienna. Most sources agree that the concert program also included Beethoven’s Septet as well as a symphony by Mozart, but there is some disagreement as to whether the remainder of the program included excerpts from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation or from The Seasons and whether Beethoven’s own Piano Concerto No. 1 or No. 2 was performed. This concert effectively served to announce Beethoven’s talents to Vienna.
Symphony No. 2
Beethoven’s Second Symphony was mostly written during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt in 1802, at a time when his deafness was becoming more pronounced and he began to realize that it might be incurable. The work was premiered in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 5 April 1803, and was conducted by the composer. During that same concert, the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives were also debuted. It is one of the last works of Beethoven’s early period.
Beethoven wrote the Second Symphony without a standard minuet; instead, a scherzo took its place, giving the composition even greater scope and energy. The scherzo and the finale are filled with Beethovenian musical jokes, which shocked the sensibilities of many contemporary critics. One Viennese critic for the Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World) famously wrote of the Symphony that it was “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”
Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’
Composed from the autumn of 1803 until the spring of 1804, the earliest rehearsals and performances of the third symphony were private, and took place in the Vienna palace of Beethoven’s noble patron, Prince Lobkowitz. An account record dated 9 June 1804, submitted by the prince’s Kapellmeister Anton Wranitzky, shows that the prince hired twenty-two extra musicians (including the third horn required for the Eroica) for two rehearsals of the work. The fee paid to Beethoven by Prince Lobkowitz would also have secured further private performances of the symphony that summer on his Bohemian estates, Eisenberg (Jezeří) and Raudnitz (Roudnice). The first public performance was on 7 April 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Reviews of the work’s public premiere (on 7 April 1805) were decidedly mixed.
Beethoven originally dedicated the third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution. In the autumn of 1804, Beethoven withdrew his dedication of the third symphony to Napoleon, lest it cost him the composer’s fee paid him by a noble patron; so, Beethoven re-dedicated his third symphony to Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz – nonetheless, despite such a bread-and-butter consideration, the politically idealistic Beethoven titled the work “Buonaparte”. An extant copy of the score bears two scratched-out, hand-written sub-titles; initially, the Italian phrase Intitolata Bonaparte (“Titled Bonaparte”), secondly, the German phrase Geschriben auf Bonaparte (“Written for Bonaparte”), four lines below the Italian sub-title. Three months after retracting his initial Napoleonic dedication of the symphony, Beethoven informed his music publisher that “The title of the symphony is really Bonaparte”. In 1806, the score was published under the Italian title Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (“Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”).
Symphony No. 4
Beethoven spent the summer of 1806 at the country estate of his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, near Glogau. In September Beethoven and the Prince visited the house of one of the latter’s friends, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count maintained a private orchestra, and the composer was honoured with a performance of his Second Symphony, written four years earlier. After this, Oppersdorff offered the composer a substantial sum to write a new symphony for him.
The symphony was premiered in March 1807 at a private concert in Vienna at the town house of Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons. The first public performance was at the Burgtheater in Vienna in April 1808. The manuscript, which was for a time owned by Felix Mendelssohn, is now in the Berlin State Library.
Symphony No. 5 ‘Schicksal’ (‘Fate’)
The Symphony No. 5 in C minor of Ludwig van Beethoven, Op. 67, was written between 1804 and 1808. It is one of the best-known compositions in classical music and one of the most frequently played symphonies, and it is widely considered one of the cornerstones of western music. First performed in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1808, the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterward. E. T. A. Hoffmann described the symphony as “one of the most important works of the time”.
The symphony, and the four-note opening motif in particular, are known worldwide, with the motif appearing frequently in popular culture, from disco versions to rock and roll covers, to uses in film and television. The Fifth has been adapted many times to other genres, including the following examples:
- It has been arranged for a piano solo by Franz Liszt.
- Electric Light Orchestra’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven” incorporates the motif and elements from the first movement into a classic rock and roll song by Chuck Berry.
- Walter Murphy adapted the first movement under the title “A Fifth of Beethoven” as a disco instrumental in 1976. It was featured in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever.
- The 1981 single “Hooked on Classics” from the album of the same name, by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, includes a portion of the Fifth.
- Joe Harnell adapted the final movement under the title “Finale/Gloria Victoria” in his score to the 1983 minseries V.
- Fantasia 2000 features a shortened version of the first movement as its opening sequence.
- The opening sequence of “Before the Flood” a 2015 episode of the UK science fiction series Doctor Who, features discussion of Beethoven’s 5th in the context of the bootstrap paradox. To punctuate the discussion, the episode begins and ends with actor Peter Capaldi playing the symphony’s opening notes on electric guitar; in the opening of the episode, the notes lead into a variation of the “Doctor Who theme music”.
Like Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastorale, Symphony No. 5 was given an explicit name besides the numbering, though not by Beethoven himself. It became popular under “Schicksals-Sinfonie” and the famous five bar theme was coined “Schicksals-Motiv”.
Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’
Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locations. The composer said that the Sixth Symphony is “more the expression of feeling than painting”, a point underlined by the title of the first movement.
The first sketches of the Pastoral Symphony appeared in 1802. It was composed simultaneously with Beethoven’s more famous—and fierier—Fifth Symphony. Both symphonies were premiered in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 22 December 1808.
The symphony was used in the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia, albeit with alterations in the length of the piece made by conductor Leopold Stokowski. Excerpts from the first movement were featured in the death scene in the 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green. The fifth movement is used extensively in Chuck Jones’ 1976 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The White Seal.
Symphony No. 7
The Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, is a symphony in four movements composed by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1811 and 1812, while improving his health in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice. The work is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries.
At its premiere, Beethoven was noted as remarking that it was one of his best works. The second movement, Allegretto, was the most popular movement and had to be encored. The instant popularity of the Allegretto resulted in its frequent performance separate from the complete symphony.
The work was premiered with Beethoven himself conducting in Vienna on 8 December 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. In Beethoven’s address to the participants, the motives are not openly named: “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”
The program also included the patriotic work Wellington’s Victory, exalting the victory of the British over Napoleon’s France. The orchestra was led by Beethoven’s friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh and included some of the finest musicians of the day: violinist Louis Spohr, composers Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Antonio Salieri, bassoonist Anton Romberg, and the Italian double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven described as playing “with great fire and expressive power”. The Italian guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani played cello at the premiere.
The piece was very well received, such that the audience demanded the Allegretto movement be encored immediately. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the podium (“as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air”), and “the friends of Beethoven made arrangements for a repetition of the concert” by which “Beethoven was extricated from his pecuniary difficulties”.
Symphony No. 8
Beethoven fondly referred to it as “my little Symphony in F,” distinguishing it from his Sixth Symphony. The work was begun in the summer of 1812, immediately after the completion of the Seventh Symphony. At the time Beethoven was 41 years old. As Antony Hopkins has noted, the cheerful mood of the work betrays nothing of the grossly unpleasant events that were taking place in Beethoven’s life at the time, which involved his interference in his brother Johann’s love life. The work took Beethoven only four months to complete.
The premiere took place on 27 February 1814, at a concert in the Redoutensaal, Vienna, at which the Seventh Symphony (which had been premiered two months earlier) was also played. Beethoven was growing increasingly deaf at the time, but nevertheless led the premiere. Reportedly, “the orchestra largely ignored his ungainly gestures and followed the principal violinist instead.”
When asked by his pupil Carl Czerny why the Eighth was less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven is said to have replied, “because the Eighth is so much better.” A critic wrote that “the applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short—as the Italians say—it did not create a furor.” Beethoven was angered at this reception. George Bernard Shaw, in his capacity as a music critic, agreed with Beethoven’s assessment of the work, writing that indeed, “In all subtler respects the Eighth is better [than the Seventh].”More recently, Jan Swafford has described the Eighth as “a beautiful, brief, ironic look backward to Haydn and Mozart.” Martin Geck has commented on the authenticity of the Eighth, noting that it contains “all the relevant hallmarks, including motivic and thematic writing notable for its advanced planning, defiant counterpoint, furious cross-rhythms, sudden shifts from piano to forte, and idyllic and even hymnlike episodes.” But other critics have been divided in their judgement.
Symphony No. 9
The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, also known as Beethoven’s 9th, is the final complete symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, composed between 1822 and 1824. It was first performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824. The symphony is regarded by many critics and musicologists as Beethoven’s greatest work and one of the supreme achievements in the history of western music. One of the best-known works in common practice music, it stands as one of the most performed symphonies in the world.
The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony (thus making it a choral symphony). The words are sung during the final (4th) movement of the symphony by four vocal soloists and a chorus. They were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with text additions made by Beethoven.
In 2001, Beethoven’s original, hand-written manuscript of the score, held by the Berlin State Library, was added to the United Nations Memory of the World Programme Heritage list, becoming the first musical score so designated.