Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 9, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Beethoven was often criticized by his contemporaries for seeming to value novelty over beauty. That was a theme of several reviews of his Second Symphony, following its premiere April 5, 1803, on a mega-concert in the Theater an der Wien that also included the premieres of the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Third Piano Concerto (played by the composer), as well as a performance of the First Symphony, to which the Second was unfavorably compared.
But Beethoven’s novelties are remarkably consistent. He progressed from symphony to symphony with revolutionary brilliance, yet as distinct as each symphony is, they are clearly interlocked in expression and invention. The brooding majesty of the Second Symphony’s slow introduction looks back to Mozart – particularly his “Prague” Symphony, also in D – and Haydn, but it also prophesies the opening of Beethoven’s own Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Its novelties – of proportion and harmonic detail – are also internally consistent, reflected throughout the Symphony, especially the great coda to the finale, which serves as a sort of bookend to the introduction.
Most of the Second Symphony was composed during the summer of 1802, when Beethoven had moved to the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt in an unsuccessful effort to preserve some of his rapidly deteriorating hearing. In October Beethoven wrote his “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a will that is also a moving personal confession.
The Second Symphony begins darkly enough, moving to D minor midway through the introduction, but otherwise there is astonishingly little of Beethoven’s personal misery here. The first movement proper ticks along in Classical good spirits, vividly contrasted in dynamics and tweaked with the harmonic traps Beethoven has already prepared in the introduction. It has its adventures in the coda, following the same harmonic digressions and roaring to a climax over a rising chromatic bass line.
The Larghetto suggests pure smiling grace, but it too is full of unruly offbeat accents. The vigorous Scherzo renews Beethoven’s interest in the dark side – the quick slip into the minor mode after the first phrase, while in its trio section bucolic woodwinds give way to the strings’ manic obsession with F-sharp.
Beethoven opens his finale with a high whoop and a low gurgle, the symphonic equivalent of bringing a hand buzzer and a whoopy cushion to a formal party. It ends with a monster coda that comes creeping in on the heels of the unaccompanied violins but soon reveals the rowdiest intentions, the tail not so much wagging the dog as tickling it into yelping submission.