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Beethoven’s Second Symphony

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Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

COMPOSER: Born December 16, 1770, Bonn; died March 26, 1827, Vienna
WORLD PREMIERE: Beethoven conducted the premiere during Holy Week, on April 5, 1803, in Vienna.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: February 25, 2013; Olari Elts, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Lovers of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music associate the word “heroic” with his Third Symphony, nicknamed “Eroica.” Beethoven’s lesser-known Second Symphony is also connected to heroism – not obvious in the music, but inherent in its composer. When Beethoven brought this exuberant symphony to life, he was overwhelmed by depression and thoughts of suicide.

Upon the advice of his doctor, Beethoven spent six months in the summer and fall of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna. There he rested and took the waters of the nearby spa. Beethoven’s doctor believed the quiet life of the village and surrounding countryside would spare Beethoven’s hearing, which had deteriorated to an alarming degree. Unfortunately, this enforced isolation plunged Beethoven into even greater despair, as he realized his hearing might never improve. On October 6, 1802, unable to contain his anguish any longer, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

“. . . For six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible) . . . If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense that ought to be more perfect in me than in others? . . . If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed . . . Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”

Beethoven never sent the letter, and it remained undiscovered until after his death in 1827.

The massive slow introduction to the first movement transitions in an instant to an intensely vibrant Allegro, almost aggressively cheerful, as if Beethoven were determined to shake off his dark state of mind through bright, vibrant melodies.

In the Larghetto, Beethoven treats the audience to a series of lyrical themes. The serenity and delicacy in this music captures the beauty of the Viennese countryside and Beethoven’s abiding love of nature.

The offbeat rhythms and fragmented melodies of the Scherzo and its accompanying trio might have scandalized the Viennese audiences of Beethoven’s time; today’s listeners know them as Beethoven’s trademark. The surprise and humor of this movement are central qualities of Beethoven’s musical personality, which was still evolving when the Symphony No. 2 premiered.

The sassy gesture that opens the Allegro molto – and serves as the thematic basis for the whole movement – is almost shocking in its insolence. Here, perhaps, is a glimpse of Beethoven’s rebellion against his deafness. The surge of energy generated by this movement is a defiant reaffirmation of will, a determination to “produce all that I felt was within me.”


Absolute Jest

COMPOSER: Born February 15, 1947, Worcester, MA
WORK COMPOSED: 2010; rev. 2012. Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to commemorate its 100th anniversary.
WORLD PREMIERE: Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony with the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Davies Symphony Hall on March 15, 2012. Adams conducted the New World Symphony in the revised version, also with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, on December 1, 2012, in Miami Beach.
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo string quartet, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, chimes, cowbell, bass drum, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, piano (special tuning), celesta, harp (special tuning), and strings

“I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention,” writes John Adams. In Absolute Jest, Adams showcases both his own wit and that of Ludwig van Beethoven, whom Adams quotes throughout the work. The Beethoven quotes, lifted mainly from the late string quartets, are not mere references, but building blocks from which Adams constructs this unique homage. Adams chooses fragments that typify what he terms “the emphatic energy of Beethoven.” Using these quotes, Adams reflects Beethoven’s mastery of “taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.”

In his own program notes, Adams writes, “The idea for Absolute Jest was suggested by a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a piece that I’d known all my life but had never much paid attention to until hearing MTT conduct it. Hearing this (and knowing that I was already committed to composing something for the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary), I was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language . . .

“Six months after the premiere, I decided to compose a different beginning to Absolute Jest – a full 400 bars of completely new music . . . that launches the piece in what is, to my ears, a far more satisfying fashion. The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the . . . Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references – of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motifs that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage . . .

“Absolute Jest had elicited mixed responses from listeners on its first outing. Quite a few reviewers assumed, perhaps because of its title, that the piece was little more than a backslapping joke . . . There is nothing particularly new about one composer internalizing the music of another and ‘making it his own’ . . . Of course there are “winks,” some of them not entirely subtle, here and there in the piece. But the act of composing the work (one that took nearly a year of work) was the most extended experience in pure ‘invention’ that I’ve ever undertaken . . . The ‘jest’ of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta:’ doings, deeds, exploits.”


Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

COMPOSER: Born November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany; died December 28, 1963, Frankfurt.
WORK COMPOSED: Hindemith began the Metamorphosis in 1940 and finished the Andantino and March on June 8 and June 13, 1943, respectively. The completed manuscript of the orchestral score is dated August 29, 1943.
WORLD PREMIERE: Artur Rodzinsky conducted the premiere on January 20, 1944, in New York with the New York Philharmonic. In 1952, George Balanchine made a ballet from the Symphonic Metamorphosis for the New York City Ballet.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: February 25, 2013; Olari Elts, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, gong, snare drum, tambourine, tenor drum, tom tom, triangle, and strings

In 1940, after immigrating to America from Nazi Germany, Paul Hindemith met with the choreographer Léonide Massine to discuss a collaboration based on some of Carl Maria von Weber’s music. Massine and Hindemith had worked together on previous ballets, but this time their attempt to forge a partnership ended in failure. In letters to his wife Gertrude, who was still in Europe, Hindemith explained, “We worked at the piano for two hours on a projected Weber ballet. I do not think the idea is any good at all. He [Massine] thinks of it only as a plain ballroom dance . . . with good people milling around with bad people. He has some funny ideas about the music but I will write what I want to write, namely, music based on those charming piano duets by Weber.”

Determined to “write what I want to write,” Hindemith refused to limit his work to mere orchestral arrangements of Weber’s music, which is all Massine seems to have wanted. “It seems that the music is too complicated for them and that they simply wanted an exact orchestral arrangement of the original Weber,” Hindemith explained. “I am not just an orchestrator and furthermore I had already told them what I would do.”

The collaboration with Massine was abandoned, but Hindemith returned to the work in 1943, while he was teaching at Yale. Rather than simply echoing Weber’s music and style, Hindemith reshaped Weber’s excerpts into what has become his most popular symphonic work.

The first, third, and fourth movements of the Symphonic Metamorphosis use music from several of Weber’s piano duets, while the second movement borrows from incidental music Weber composed for Friedrich Schiller’s translation of Turandot. Within each movement, Weber’s music is embedded inside Hindemith’s distinctive voice, which is by turns playful, tender, exuberant, or restrained. Hindemith’s sense of humor emerges in his witty use of wind instruments and brasses in the first movement, a raucous polka. The main theme of the second movement – an old Chinese melody Weber himself had adapted from older sources – is presented in a series of variations and further elaborated with a jazzy fugue. The third movement highlights Hindemith’s exquisite sense of lyricism, while the final movement features all of the orchestra’s colors and moods in an up-tempo march.

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com



Beethoven – Second Symphony
Karl Bohm – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
2-Deutsche Grammophon 439681 OR

Bernard Haitink – London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live 582

Adams – Absolute Jest
St. Lawrence Quartet Michael Tilson Thomas – San Francisco Symphony
SFS Media 63

Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Herbert Blomstedt – San Francisco Symphony
Decca 421523 OR

Michael Stern – Kansas City Symphony
Reference Recordings 132 OR

Paul Hindemith – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
3-Deutsche Grammophon 000185302