A Series of Firsts, Part III: Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are perhaps the most often recorded body of music in the history of sound.  A quick search on Amazon reveals over 2,000 different items for purchase, on all sorts of media, analog and digital.  Beethoven’s culminating work in the genre of the symphony, his glorious Ninth, even had an impact on the design of the compact disc.  There is a great love in Japan for Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral finale, and it has become a New Year’s Eve tradition for orchestras in Japan to perform the work.  This tradition may have had its origin in a World War II prison camp, during a cultural exchange between German and Japanese soldiers housed together.

In 1979, over 150 years after Beethoven’s death, the first industry standards for the commercial compact disc were being formulated by executives at Sony and Phillips.  The initial thought was to create a disc with the capacity to hold 60 minutes of music.  This would not have been long enough to contain a complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on one disc.  The wife of Sony chairman Akio Morita insisted her favorite piece of music be accommodated on one disc.  The longest recording at that time was a treasured performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, which ran 74 minutes long.  Pressure from the Sony executives won out, and the Phillips preference for a 115mm disc was replaced by a 120mm disc, which would have enough capacity to contain the Ninth symphony.  (This conveniently also erased a head start Phillips had in manufacturing, as the Phillips corporation already had a factory set up to make 115mm compact discs.)

scoreAlthough few pieces are as influential as Beethoven’s last symphony, he entered somewhat cautiously into composing his first symphony.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major was premiered on April 2, 1800, and first published a year later.  The original manuscript is lost, so we are not certain of the exact date it was finished, but composition on the First may have begun up to five years before it was performed.  Beethoven was 30 years old at the premiere of his First Symphony. By comparison, Mozart had written 38 symphonies by that age, and Schubert died at the age of 31 with nine or ten symphonies behind him at that point.  In 1800, it had been five years since Haydn’s final symphony, and twelve years since the composition of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Beethoven was very aware of his audience in Vienna, and although other composers wrote works after Mozart and Haydn, very little had caught on.  Ludwig was an outsider from Bonn, and had earned a good reputation as a pianist and composer.  He wanted his reputation to continue to grow with his first efforts in the realm of symphonic composition.

In his First symphony, we hear Ludwig van Beethoven as a classicist, showing a mastery of the Viennese classical style handed down to him by Haydn and Mozart.  This is Beethoven, aware of his musical heritage and the expectations of the audience.  This is also Beethoven before he slowly began to lose his hearing, before the emotional turmoil of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and before his self-characterization as artistic hero against the forces of fate and destiny.  The First symphony is a brilliant work in its own right, but it is also impossible for modern listeners to hear it without knowing what is to arrive with the other eight.  If Ludwig had written a dozen more symphonies in the style of his first, he would still be an important composer of the day.  What we realize is that Ludwig is going to smash through the classical models that were the standard, and bring music into an entirely different territory.  In the First symphony, we see Beethoven giving the audience evidence that he has conquered the classical model.  We know he is going to burst free from the model later.

GroveBeethoven, that bad boy from Bonn, does give us a good measure of originality even as he tries to give the Viennese audience what it expects.  The first movement of the work is in sonata form with a slow introduction.  The very first notes are an unexpected dissonance, a dominant seventh chord on C that resolves to F major.  Next, a dominant seventh on G resolves to A minor, then D dominant seventh moves us to G major.  This harmonic ambiguity does nothing to establish the advertised key of C major, and has the effect of giving us a mysterious and groping introduction to the work.  On one level, sonata form is about establishing a home key, moving away from it and finding our way back to it.  Slow introductions were common enough, but being unclear about the key is not normal: as Professor Robert Greenberg says, “Haydn would not have done this”.  Our 21st century ears do not feel shocked by a simple seventh chord, but it was an original move in 1800.  George Grove wrote in his 1896 book, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, “The opening may not seem novel or original to us, but at that date it was audacious …..”.

After the much written about twelve bar introduction, Ludwig gives us a motivic first theme that firmly establishes the home key of C major in three phrases.  Interestingly, some of the underlying background harmonic progression of the first theme is exactly what was the foreground harmonic mystery of the introduction.  This is a brilliant bit of construction that integrates the wandering introduction into the body of the sonata form. It is even more impressive when this progression is expanded in the first theme when it returns in the recapitulation.  The second theme is built with two motives found in the first theme, a four note descending idea now elongated and traded between oboe and flute, accompanied by an arpeggiated triad figure in the strings.  This is Beethoven’s main compositional process, composing with compact motives in an economical fashion that creates a genius of architecture from these seemingly insignificant building blocks.  The development section of this movement is a classically restrained structure which primarily uses sequences of material from the themes.

The second movement is what passes for a slow movement, but in reality it is not all that slow.  It is marked Andante Cantabile con moto,  translated as, a walking pace in a singing style with motion.  Ludwig really does not want this section to drag in tempo.  The second movement is also in a sort of sonata form, with embellishment serving as the main technique in the development.  This sort of quasi-sonata form has a clear precedent in the slow movement of Mozart’s G minor symphony.  Beethoven was clearly aware of this, and likely most of the Viennese audience was as well.  It is a measure of respect and homage to Wolfgang Mozart, and Beethoven surely welcomed the comparison in the listener’s mind.

The labeling of the third movement as a Minuet is a bit of a farce, as this is clearly a Beethovenian Scherzo in disguise.  A Minuet is a stately, courtly dance in triple meter, but any dancing couple would have to ingest a large dose of methamphetamine to keep up with the fast and driving music of this section.  It is a positive whirlwind of a movement, far and away the most original of the four.  There is a connection to the first movement.  A rising chromatic motive from the introduction of the first movement, which is incorporated into the body of the first movement, now becomes the basis for the opening theme of this third movement.  Even if your ears don’t consciously pick out this connection, there is a subliminal unity created between movements when these motives appear transformed in other places of the work.  One of Beethoven’s greatest strengths is this sort of musical construction, and here we find it on display in his very first symphony.

HopkinsThe fourth and final movement is another sonata form, full of vitality and a fitting finale to the work.  The most striking feature is the humorous opening to the movement.  It is not terribly often that the word humorous is used in conjunction with the troubled, tormented, digestively challenged and emotionally suffering Ludwig van Beethoven.  Here in the introduction to the fourth movement, humor and a clear musical joke, in the manner of Haydn, is exactly what Beethoven was going for.  The opening grand unison G is followed by a passage in the strings, where they try to play a scale by building it one measly note at a time.  The listener is meant to smile, to giggle to themselves at this comedy of strings.  Antony Hopkins writes in his book, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, the strings are “like a bevy of hesitant beginners clutching unfamiliar instruments, the first violins make abortive attempts to play a scale, progressing one note further each time.”  After Beethoven’s little musical game, the movement takes off with a rising scale theme that serves as a fittingly vigorous finale to the work.

I have included below, two different performances of the symphony.  The first is by the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan conducting.  Karajan recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven symphonies on four separate occasions in his career.  It was a sort of personal obsession of his to create the definitive performance of Beethoven’s works with the best recording technology available.  As recording technology improved, Karajan got the bug to re-record the symphonies to create a cutting edge version.  The second recording is the Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood conducting, one of the recent recordings in the  “historically informed performance” approach.  The Academy plays on period instruments similar to those of Beethoven’s day, and more closely follows Beethoven’s metronome markings.  The result is a bit drier and cleaner sound, with no vibrato, and an overall quicker pace to the performance.  If you don’t particularly care for either of these recordings, look around a bit.  I assure you there are only a few hundred more editions in print from which you may choose.

Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic


Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music

A Ruggedly Vigorous Musical Joke

A Ruggedly Vigorous Musical Joke

Bruckner’s Scherzi are outstanding for their freshness and rugged vigor, and this one is no exception.

  • Benjamin Korstvedt

In most of Bruckner’s Symphonies, the second movement is a slow movement.  Here in the Eighth, he has reversed his normal ordering and made the second movement a Scherzo.  As I alluded to in the previous post, this movement is connected to the first movement by being in the same tonic key of c minor.  Anton can convincingly do this because the first movement didn’t exactly beat us over the head with c minor.  It was full of chromatic, roving harmonies that keep the sound of c minor fresh enough to use in the second movement.

Minuet“Scherzo” is an Italian word, roughly translated as “joke”.  Beethoven wrote some of the most influential Scherzi as the “dance” movement of his Symphonies, and many composers in the following generations took the Beethoven concept of a Scherzo as their example.  For the longest time as a student, I couldn’t make the connection of “joke” to the Beethoven Scherzo.  My best understanding came when I thought back to the Minuet and Trio, which the Scherzo replaces in most cases.  A minuet is social ballroom dance of French origin, danced in triple meter like the waltz.  Old Ludwig had little use for this society dance, and had aspirations to expand the individual expression of the “classical” forms.  Beethoven kept the triple meter of the minuet, but sped things up and intensified the music from the polite, light dance.  In my mind, the “joke” of the Scherzo  is imagining eighteenth century nobles in their powdered wigs trying to dance a society minuet  to the galloping music of Beethoven.  Here is the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.  Try to envision the powdered wigs flying about.

Beethoven Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, Movement III, Scherzo

Bruckner is certainly taking Beethoven’s lead, and making it his own in the second movement Scherzo of Symphony No. 8.  For all of its length, Bruckner’s Scherzo follows a pretty typical classical form.  The large chunk of music that is the Scherzo is contrasted with a Trio section, then followed by a reprise of the Scherzo music.  This isn’t even a “double Scherzo” that has a second Trio section. (Scherzo – Trio I – Scherzo – Trio II – Scherzo)  Again, as in the first movement, the phrasing and form are pretty regular.  Bruckner builds the Scherzo section of music from two motives.  The first motive is heard in the first two bars, and consists of the violins playing a string of descending, chromatic chords.  This is followed in bar three with the second main motive, an arpeggiated tonic c-minor chord in the cellos and violas.  The second motive drives home c-minor more effectively than almost anything that took place in the opening movement.  The Scherzo music unfolds in a large rounded binary form that takes up the first six minutes of the recording below.

sunshineThe Trio section is contrasting music that starts at 6:05 in the recording.  Mr. Korsvedt calls it a “miniature slow movement tucked into the Scherzo”, and I think that is a pretty spot-on description.  The score is marked Langsam (fairly slow), and starts in the key of A flat major (the relative major to c minor).  One notable feature to listen for is Bruckner’s use of the harp in this Trio section. This is  first time Anton used harps in one of his symphonies.  They arrive at 7:41 in the video below, and provide a tranquil, peaceful moment that has not been felt before in the Eighth symphony.  Also at this same moment, we land in E Major, in a root position triad that has a bright and shimmering sound.  This moment is worth the price of admission.  It is the simplest of chords, a major triad with the root in the bottom, but sounds like a ray of sunshine from a far off star.  This is in part because E Major is so far away harmonically from c minor, where the Scherzo started.  This shiny key of E Major also becomes important in the next movement, the Adagio, adding a further element binding the symphony together.

The Scherzo music returns at 10:19, and is played as an exact repeat of the first time we heard it.  In fact, Bruckner doesn’t even write it out in the score.  He follows classical conventions and simply writes “Scherzo D.C.” meaning Scherzo da capo.  It encompasses the final six minutes of the recording below.  This is the same performance that we heard for the first movement in the last post, with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Herbert von Karajan was a brilliant conductor who left a huge body of recordings for us to listen to.  I think that his recording of Symphony No.8, on the whole, is a great version to hear.  I do have to quibble a small point here in the Scherzo, however.  Given my notion that a Scherzo is an intensification of the minuet, I prefer the Scherzo music of this second movement at a quicker tempo than Karajan takes it.  I like the Trio slower than the Scherzo, providing even more contrast between the sections.  Here is an alternate version, with a conductor flapping his arms in a vigorous fashion, that is closer to my preferred tempo. Admittedly, it is a matter of taste.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Second Movement, Scherzo

Next up, the big, grand, gorgeous slow movement Adagio.


Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

The last post delved into some of the issues surrounding the multiple editions of Bruckner’s Symphonies, and the obstacles they imposed on me as a student.  It’s high time we got a bit more into the music.  There are things that should make a Bruckner score easier to follow.  All of his (finished) symphonies are in four movements, with the first and last being in sonata form.  The two middle movements always are a Scherzo and a slow movement Adagio in ABABA form.  Bruckner usually places the Adagio as the second movement followed by the Scherzo, but as we will see in coming posts, that ordering is reversed in the Eighth.  His musical phrases are often very regular four bar phrases, creating nice neat square holes.   We will hear some very round pegs being hammered into those square holes as the music goes on.

AustriaANK953I think one other issue demands comment before we go too much further.  Buckner was an Austrian composer, and died in 1896.  It would be somewhat surprising if Anton didn’t have some anti-semitic leanings, given the time and place where he lived.  There is no excusing that, but he died decades before the world ever knew what a Nazi was.  More than a generation after his death, the German Nazi party championed Bruckner as good German music and culture.  Anton’s music was on the “good” list, as many other things were on a “bad” list in the Nazi attempt to “purify” German culture in music and the arts.  Still, Bruckner was an Austrian, died over 40 years before the Anschluss, and should not be blamed for the posthumous, political uses of his music by the German Nationalist Socialists.  I propose we take Symphony No. 8 on it’s own terms.

The terms of the Eighth are those of a work of art that is intended to be monumental.  This is a big musical statement, of considerable weight and length.  I am not kidding about length, there is a pathological numbness of the gluteus maximus that occurs during a performance of one of these symphonies that I refer to as “Bruckner Buns”.  These are massive musical works of solidity and grandeur.  The first movement is in sonata form, but I would contend it is not a very “well behaved” sonata form.  A model sonata form is usually about key areas, thematic development, and resolution of key area tension in a recapitulation.  Bruckner’s use of a highly “Wagnerian” harmonic language creates problems in politely establishing a key area.  Richard Wagner may have advanced music in a number of ways, but he wrote almost exclusively operas (or music dramas as he liked to call them). He used a high level of chromaticism in his harmonic language, used motives (leitmotifs) to identify characters and ideas, and wove all of this into a sort of “endless melody”.  All the while, there is a story and plot to hold the action together and give it structure.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Bruckner is often seen as one of the composers who took some of Wagner’s musical language and adapted it to a symphonic form.  This is a particular challenge, using a highly chromatic language of roving harmonies that rarely establish a clear key, in a sonata form that is (on one level) all about establishing key centers.  Anton’s themes and thematic groups eventually wander around to the key they are supposed to be in, but sometimes only finding the dominant seventh chord, and not the actual home tonic chord.  This is a habit directly borrowed from Wagner.  These themes of roving harmonies are the round pegs hammered into four bar square holes.

The truth of the matter is, Bruckner’s forms are more held together by the motives of the themes.  Many times it is the rhythmic aspect of these motives that is the glue, more so than the actual pitches.  The pitches and direction of the themes are sometimes inverted, elongated, augmented.   Through all of these mutations, it is their rhythmic DNA that defines their relationship.  These relationships connect parts within a single movement, as well as across all four movements of the symphony.


The first movement is a sonata form with three thematic groups in the exposition.  The first group starts at bar 1 (the beginning of the recording below) and eventually (not immediately) establishes the tonic key of c minor.  The shimmering opening of a single pitch, with the soft entrance of a chromatic motive after a couple of bars, is a signature Bruckner device.  The second thematic group starts at bar 51, about 2:09 in the recording, and is in the dominant key of G.  This second group gives us the characteristic “Bruckner rhythm” , a 2 + 3 (duplet + triplet) grouping that Anton loves to use. The third thematic group, the closing section of the exposition, begins at bar 97 (4:12) and is the key of E flat (the relative major).

A long development section starts at bar 153 (6:22 in the recording) and runs for about  six minutes.  The recapitulation, something that is usually a big landmark, happens at bar 311 (12:14)  is really “artfully blurred” (to use Benjamin Korstvedt’s words).  Anton really only brings back the second and third sections of the exposition, and that’s all he really needed since the end of the development section relies heavily on material from the first section of the exposition.  Anton has taken that big seam, between the development and the recapitulation, and just spackled right over it.

A short coda section ends the movement quietly on c as it is supposed to.  Looking forward to the next movement, we see that it is the Scherzo (in the place Bruckner would usually have the slow Adagio).  We also notice that it is in the tonic key of c minor, also something unusual for Bruckner.  The fact is, because of all the roving, chromatic ambiguity in the first movement, our ears are not worn out on c minor yet.  Anton can provide us with some more of the tonic key, but that story is for the next post.

I don’t think it is necessary to paste in pieces of the score here showing each of the rhythmic motives so you can listen and wait for each to occur.  Listening just a bit at each of the landmarks I pointed out above, is plenty enough to find them.  They are not hidden in the least, in fact, often they are blasted out by an army of brass players.  These are the things that form a web of connections that hold the movement together, and they let the harmonies push tonality to its limit throughout the work.

For now, enjoy Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in c minor.  Karajan uses the score edited by Robert Haas, published in 1939 by the International Bruckner Society.  We know from the last post that this is a bit of a hybrid of the 1887 and 1890 versions.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, First Movement