Composed 1812, premièred 1814
Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
Beethoven completed this work in 1812, and conducted the first performance at Vienna on February 27, 1814. The year 1812 was both eventful and productive for the very deaf but very famous Beethoven. In July, at Teplitz spa, he finally met the great Goethe (1749-1832), but was disappointed to find (in his opinion) an aging courtier who was neither a firebrand nor a fellow democrat, and furthermore a musical dilettante. In turn, Beethoven's power both as a person and as an artist impressed Goethe, but the old poet-playwright was fatigued by his high-pitched intensity and offended by a lack of manners bordering on rudeness.
Withal, Beethoven somehow made time in 1812 to compose a final violin and piano sonata (Op. 96), and to complete a new pair of symphonies. Nos. 7 and 8, begun in 1809 (the year of the Emperor Concerto), were related in much the way his Fifth and Sixth symphonies had been. In 1813 he conducted the Dionysian Seventh to great acclaim, but saved the elfin Eighth for an 1814 concert where it was fatally sandwiched between the Seventh Symphony and Wellington's Victory, or the Battle of Vittoria. This last was adored by the audience in direct proportion to its awfulness, but they only sniffed at the Eighth.
Compared to the Seventh, No. 8 is benign as well as brief. There are four movements, in all of which the old Classical forms are clearly delineated but somehow thrown out of balance by a constant barrage of curiously humorous distortions. Were the work not such an essentially lyrical joy, one might divine hints of the creative crisis to come for its maker. Its metronomic second movement (which is perhaps an actual tweaking of the recently invented metronome) has only 81 bars—the fewest in Beethoven's symphonic canon. The composer asked that the third movement be played Tempo di minuetto (in fact it is a Landler), rather than at scherzo speed. The movement's heavy, graceless accents seem to poke fun at the courtly world only recently passed.The first and final movements are both written in sonata form, both marked Allegro vivace—con brio, too, in the first.
Beethoven reserved for the finale a leviathan-length coda, by then one of his musical signatures—236 bars, only 30 fewer than the combined exposition, development, and reprise! The movement wears its complexity so lightly that its true subtlety may all too easily pass unnoticed. Sudden loud interruptions in a very remote key herald still more radical explorations in the development. Here, the main rondo theme is debated in counterpoint, with cross rhythms and unexpected harmonic twists. But the giant coda is only the last joke in a work of cloudless skies and merriment. As John N. Burk summed the work up in his evergreen Life and Works of Beethoven: "[His] humor seems to consist of sudden turns in the course of an even and lyrical flow, breaking in upon formal, almost archaic periods. It is a sudden irregularity, showing its head where all [had been] regular—an altered rhythm, an explosion of fortissimo, a foreign note or an unrelated tonality...like divine play in that pure region of tonal thinking [where] melody and invention pour forth...and fancy is furiously alive." Beethoven himself thought it one of his best symphonies, while Robert Schumann praised its "profound humor" and wrote that the second movement particularly filled him with "tranquility and happiness."
(All Music Guide)