Beethoven Symphony No. 2

From our 21st century vantage-point we know of the great heaven-storming works that were still to come in Beethoven’s career, but when we look back to this work, we see that Symphony No. 2 is still firmly anchored in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s forerunners.

Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 2 in Heiligenstadt, where he had gone in an attempt to find a cure for his hearing problem. His realisation that no cure was possible — he even considered suicide — can be read in the moving and well-known Heiligenstadt Testament that he wrote to his two brothers Carl and Johann during that time.

Beethoven's music was often influenced by his personal circumstances but in this case Beethoven clearly did not wish to have his inner torment on display. The generally sunny music of the symphony does not betray the darkness in his soul.

There is yet another paradox concerning the symphony: Beethoven, encouraged by the success of his Symphony No. 1, had decided to challenge his audience. The symphony has a number of unusual formal features, such as the length of the symphony as a whole and his definitive farewell to the traditional minuet, which from this symphony onwards became a pointedly phrased scherzo. The music itself also begins to display characteristically Beethovenian traits: it is maniacally driven and heavily accented where necessary, with an emotional use of cantabile wherever possible. Our modern ears accept this without special comment, but for Beethoven's contemporaries these were shockingly innovative techniques. After the symphony's premiere in the Theater an der Wien on April 5 1803, a critic for the Zeitung für die elegante Welt described the work as ‘a loathsomely writhing wounded dragon that refuses to die, but which bleeds to death in the fourth movement'. After a performance in Paris in 1811 the composer Giuseppe Cambini was to write ‘Scarcely has he filled the listener's soul with sweet melancholy than he tears it apart with barbarous chords. In my opinion doves and crocodiles dwell in him in equal quantity'.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood