Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies were composed one after the other, as were the Fifth and Sixth. They were also considered as pairs because of their musical content: the fresh breezes of the Sixth follow the dramatic Fifth, whilst the pointed and bright Eighth stands in strong contrast to the stirringly Romantic Seventh.
After Beethoven’s customary struggles to compose with the Seventh Symphony, the Eighth was clearly child’s play for him in comparison: he composed the entire symphony in four months. The fact that Beethoven worked under difficult personal circumstances — an unattainable love, a conflict with his brother, ill health and continual worsening of his deafness — and could still compose such sun-drenched music negates the Romantic image of the artist who pours out his soul into his art. It seems to be much more likely that the Eighth was in fact a distraction from his personal circumstances at that time.
The Eighth Symphony is the Cinderella of the cycle: it is the least popular with audiences but is much admired by connoisseurs. Beethoven himself felt that the Eighth was a better work than the Seventh; at one point he became upset with a critic who found it necessary to tell him that the Eighth was not as successful a work as, for example, the Seventh.
The Eighth is in any case the wittiest of all of Beethoven’s symphonies, with amusing and novel ideas in each movement. The beginning of the first movement is identical to the end of the movement and there is no slow movement — in its place Beethoven composed an imitation of a metronome, invented only shortly beforehand by his friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. An absurdly humorous effect is created by Beethoven placing an elegant and graceful melody over the woodwinds’ ‘metronomic’ ticking; according to Iván Fischer, this melody could easily come straight from a Rossini opera.
The following minuet plays a clever trick on the dancers: the treacherous misplaced accents make it extremely difficult for them to keep their place. During the last movement we seem to see Beethoven grinning broadly: a wild ride through modulations, sudden interjections and whimsical contrasts leaves the audience gasping for breath. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky judged this to be the best symphonic music that Beethoven ever composed.
Richard Wagner summarised the two symphonies as follows:
'Nowhere is there a greater frankness, or freer power, than in the Symphony in A. It is a mad outburst of superhuman energy, with no other object than the pleasure of unloosing it like a river overflowing its banks and flooding the surrounding country. In the Eighth Symphony the power is not so sublime, although it is still more strange and characteristic of the man, mingling tragedy with force and a Herculean vigour with the games and caprices of a child'.
Translation: Peter Lockwood