Beethoven completed this symphony during the summer of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, just outside of Vienna. The piece, dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, was premiered on April 5th, 1803 and is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in A, two bassoons, two horns in D and E, two trumpets in D, timpani, and strings. The Second Symphony is often thought of as the beginning of Beethoven’s march toward a new domain in the genre, and a decisive departure from tradition. Although Beethoven wrote this piece at a point of severe crisis, (his plunging into deafness) the music itself does not reflect his condition as many others do. Rather than tragedy and mourning, the listener will hear bright energy [and] calm beauty2 throughout the symphony.
The first movement of this piece begins in the calm before the storm. A slow introduction meanders its way toward the first theme, building tension with syncopated rhythms, descending and ascending chromatic runs, and a suite of unexpected dynamic variation. Finally, in measure 33, the first violin quickly descends off a sustained tone, ushering in the first theme of the movement in measure 34. The violas, cellos, and basses erupt out of the slow intro, pushing the melodic line through the lower register while the violins add driving rhythmic accents to establish the ferocity of character that echoes through the whole movement. The theme is presented in a period structure, but the antecedent phrase is temporarily interrupted in measure 40 for five measures of interpolation that add even more tension moving toward the transition. The relatively short theme 1 concludes with a perfect authentic cadence in the key of D at measure 47, and the transition takes off at breakneck pace.
The transition uses some thematic material from theme 1, but it could not feel more foreign to its predecessor. Fraught with rhythmic agitation, the key is quickly shifted to d minor, the parallel minor of the original key. The violins introduce a suite of chromatically altered passage work that tonicize non tonic chords and distance the listener further from the first theme, even as its melodic movements are continually fragmented and sprinkled throughout. Held tones in the winds and upper strings increase the intensity and build to measure 61, where the first and second violins scream through one final moving passage that takes us to the key of A in preparation for the second theme. The transition ends in stark contrast to preceding rhythmic excitement with five quarter notes played throughout the ensemble, ending with an IAC in the key of A in measure 73.
As theme 2 begins, a listener may believe that a brief respite from intensity is at hand with piano dynamics and a softly ascending melodic line in the woodwinds. This is not the case however, as the antecedent phrase explodes in both volume and rhythm with no hesitation or preparation. This trend is repeated once more, creating a double period from measure 73 to measure 88. Next, a period structure is adopted from measure 88 to measure 95, drastically increasing the rate of change while steadily layering in more voices on the melodic line. A period is introduced in measure 96 with a call and response figure between strings and winds, but is interrupted one measure before its cadence with an interpolation in measures 102-110. The interpolation has the string section leap down to almost complete silence and build up to a huge perfect authentic cadence in A at measure 112, ending the second theme and immediately launching the closing section. From measures 112-138, various voices hold out tonic pedals as the melodic line continues to push toward the development and the harmony moves between V and I to further emphasize the ending of the exposition, and to prepare the listener for the modulation to come. The violins erupt in a flurry of cadential descending eighth notes in measures 126-129 until a surprisingly soft ending closes the exposition at measure 138.
In contrast to the exposition, the core of the development was provided no introduction, and the development of theme 1 begins immediately at measure 138. After an initial statement of theme 1’s melodic subject, the lower strings begin sequencing the descending quarter note pattern down as the upper strings begin to build rhythmic tension. After a brief period of call and response between upper strings and woodwinds, these roles switch in measure 158, and the upper strings sequence the eighth note pattern upwards as the lower strings provide chromatic tension in long held tones. In measure 182, the subject of the core switches to measures 73-76 from the second theme of the exposition. From measures 182-195, theme 2 is thrown between the flute and fagotti, continuously modulating further from its original key. The upper strings once again build toward a change with an ascending eighth note run toward the beginning of the retransition at measure 198. The retransition introduces even more fragmentation and rhythmic agitation until measure 215, where the first violin ushers in the recapitulation in the exact same manner as the expo.
The recap passes through its restatement of the expo with almost no variation. Theme one remains the same length and phrase structure, and it is only the beginning of the transition, originally measures 47-64, that are omitted in the recap. Theme two also remains very similar, although the melodic and harmonic lines are transferred across the ensemble. The closing section begins at measure 284, using material from the expo to build toward what the listener would assume to be the end of the piece, but again Beethoven expertly defies expectation, and begins a coda with fragments of ideas from theme 1. Finally, around measure 326, the entire ensemble pushes toward the end with long tones held over frantic trills, building toward a tutti section of eighth note cadential figures at 354 that end the movement with the intensity it deserves.
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