The Eighth Symphony is generally light-hearted, though not lightweight, and in many places is cheerfully loud, with many accented notes. Various passages in the symphony are heard by some listeners to be musical jokes. As with various other Beethoven works such as the Opus 27 piano sonatas, the symphony deviates from Classical tradition in making the last movement the weightiest of the four.
Portrait of Beethoven in 1815, a year after the premiere of his 8th Symphony.
The work was begun in the summer of 1812, immediately after the completion of the Seventh Symphony. At the time Beethoven was 41 years old. As Antony Hopkins has noted, the cheerful mood of the work betrays nothing of the grossly unpleasant events that were taking place in Beethoven's life at the time, which involved his interference in his brother Johann's love life. The work took Beethoven only four months to complete, and was dedicated to the banker Count Moritz Fries, who, according to Karl Holz, paid Beethoven a regular subsidy for some years until his bankruptcy in 1825.
The premiere took place on February 27, 1814, at a concert at which the mighty Seventh Symphony (which had been premiered two months earlier) was also played. Beethoven was growing increasingly deaf at the time, but nevertheless led the premiere. Reportedly, "the orchestra largely ignored his ungainly gestures and followed the principal violinist instead".
When asked by his pupil Carl Czerny why the Eighth was less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven is said to have replied, "because the Eighth is so much better." A critic wrote that "the applause it [the Eighth Symphony] received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short—as the Italians say—it did not create a furor." Beethoven was angered at this reception because he considered the Eighth "much better" than the Seventh.
This movement is in the home key of F major and is in fast 3/4 time. As with most of Beethoven's first movements of this period, it is written in sonata form, including a fairly substantial coda. As Antony Hopkins has noted, the movement is slightly unusual among Beethoven's works in that it reaches its dramatic climax not during the development section, but at the onset of the recapitulation. To this end, the concluding bars of the development form a huge crescendo, and the return of the opening bars is marked fff (fortississimo), which rarely appears in Beethoven's works, but has precedents in the 6th and 7th Symphonies. This extravagance is made up for however, in the quiet closing measures of the movement.
The opening theme is in three sections of four bars each, with the pattern forte-piano-forte. At the onset of the recapitulation, the theme is made more emphatic by omitting the middle four bars.
There is a widespread belief that this movement is an affectionate parody of the metronome, which had only recently been invented (or more accurately, merely improved) by Beethoven's friend Johann Maelzel. Specifically the belief was that the movement was based on a canon called "Ta ta ta... Lieber Maelzel", WoO 162, said to have improvised at a dinner party in Maelzel's honor in 1812. There is no evidence corroborating this story and its likely that WoO was not written by Beethoven but was constructed after-the-fact by Anton Schindler. A more likely inspiration was the similar rhythmic parody of Joseph Haydn's "Clock" Symphony.
The metronome-like parody starts at the very beginning of the movement with even staccato chords in 16th notes (semiquavers) played by the wind instruments, and a basic 16th-note rhythm continues fairly steadily through the piece. The tempo is unusually fast for a symphonic "slow movement".
The key is B flat major, the subdominant of F, and the organization is what Charles Rosen has called "slow movement sonata form"; that is, at the end of the exposition there is no development section, but only a simple modulation back to B flat for the recapitulation; this also may be described as sonatina form.
The second subject includes a motif of very rapid 64th notes (hemidemisemiquavers), suggesting perhaps a rapidly unwinding spring in a not-quite-perfected metronome. This motif is played by the whole orchestra at the end of the coda.
A nostalgic invocation of the old minuet, obsolete by the time this symphony was composed. (A similar nostalgic minuet appears in the Piano Sonata Opus 31 no. 3, from 1802). The style of Beethoven's minuet is not particularly close to its 18th century models, as it retains a rather coarse, thumping rhythm. Thus, for example, after the initial upbeat Beethoven places the dynamic indication sforzando (sf) on each of the next five beats. This makes the minuet stylistically close to the other movements of the symphony, which likewise rely often on good-humored, thumping accents.
Like most minuets, this one is written in ternary form, with a contrasting trio section containing prized solos for horns and clarinet. The clarinet solo is of significant importance in that it was the first major example of a solo clarinet playing a written G6.Igor Stravinsky praised the 'incomparable instrumental thought' shown in Beethoven's orchestration of the trio section.
This is the most substantial movement, in very fast tempo. It is written in a version of sonata rondo form in which the opening material reappears in three places: the start of the development section, the start of the recapitulation, and about halfway through the coda. This is the first symphonic movement in which the timpani are tuned in octaves, foreshadowing the similar octave-F tuning in the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony.
The fourth movement imitates the first in that the move to the second subject first adopts the "wrong" key, then moves to the normal key (exposition: dominant, recapitulation: tonic) after a few measures.
The coda is one of the most substantial and elaborate in all of Beethoven's works. The coda has two particularly striking events. The harmonically out-of-place loud C♯ that interrupts the main theme in the exposition and recapitulation finally gets an "explanation": it turns out to be the root of the dominantchord of the remote key of F♯ minor, and the main theme is loudly played in this key. A few measures later, there is a stunning modulation in which this key is "hammered down" by a semitone, arriving instantaneously at the home key of F major.
The symphony ends in good humor on a very long passage of loud tonic harmony.
^ Some instances given by Hopkins (1981; 224, 232, 233-4, 236-7) are: 1st mvt. bars 36-37 (bassoon mimicry), the "breaking of the metronome" passage at end of the second movement, the shift of the minuet into 2/4 time, and the hesitancy in the last movement about whether the exposition will be repeated or not.
The Music Acoustics Group at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) has studied the differences between musical rhythm as created by musicians vs. metronome rhythm; for discussion and audio demonstrations consult their page on Rules for Music Performance.