Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Related Artists/CompaniesLudwig van Beethoven
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Christian Tetzlaff, violin, plays Widmann - Feb. 27 - Mar. 1, 2014
Christian Tetzlaff's "sheer, explosive virtuosity" (The New York Times) comes to the fore in Widmann's Violin Concerto. Beethoven's First and Second Symphonies frame the program, completing the NSO's recent Beethoven cycle.
About the Work
Beethoven composed his Second Symphony in 1801-02 and conducted the first performance on April 5, 1803, at the Theater an der Wien. The National Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of this work on December 17, 1944, under Hans Kindler, and presented it most recently on July 24, 1998, at Wolf Trap, Elizabeth Schulze conducting.
The score, dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, with timpani and strings. Duration, 32 minutes.
By the time he turned 30 Beethoven had solidly established himself in Vienna. With his First Symphony, his first two piano concertos and numerous chamber works behind him, he greeted the new century with an expressed determination to "take a new road." His Second Symphony, one of his first ventures on that new road, has a background far more dramatic than its genial substance might suggest.
From May to October of 1802 Beethoven lived in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt; it was there that he composed most of this work, and there, just before moving back to Vienna itself, that he wrote the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament in which he lamented his growing deafness and declared to his two brothers: "With joy I hasten to meet death." He was then 31 years old; he did not merely become resigned to his hearing loss, but determined to "seize Fate by the throat," as one of his early biographers put it. In that remarkable decade alone he would compose such works as the opera Fidelio; the Symphonies Nos. 3 (Eroica), 4, 5 and 6 (Pastoral); the three "Rasumovsky" string quartets; the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" sonatas for piano; the Violin Concerto; and the Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5.
Neither despair nor heroic resolve is in any way hinted at in the Second Symphony, a prevailingly cheerful work illumined by a feeling of robust vitality and well-being. The circumstances of its premiere may be said to reflect Beethoven's energy level at the time. The huge program included the premieres of the Second Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives as well as performances of the First Symphony and other earlier works. After working on the trombone parts for the oratorio till five o'clock that morning, Beethoven began rehearsing at 8 and continued, with a brief pause for refreshments, till about an hour before the beginning of the concert itself, which ran till nearly midnight. Some of the announced pieces had to be omitted, but all those cited here were performed, Beethoven playing the solo part in the Concerto from pages covered only with baffling scrawls which served as cues until he could notate the score properly.
Of all the music introduced in that concert, the Second Symphony was the least well received. Some of the critics present heard threatening rumblings in its vivacious geniality, and about a year later, when the work was performed in conservative Leipzig, the critic for the Zeitung für die elegante Welt characterized it as
a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, though bleeding to death, furiously beats about with its tail in the finale.
Beethoven, never particularly bothered by what music critics had to say, was by then completing the genuinely revolutionary Eroica, which would change all previously held notions of what a symphony ought to be.
Hector Berlioz described the Second Symphony as "noble, energetic, proud," and considered the slow introduction to the first movement "a masterpiece" in its own right. One might say it is the introduction to more than a single movement of this single work, and imagine the delight and surprise which Haydn himself might have experienced on hearing the witty and inventive play with pungent themes and striking wind coloring in the Allegro con brio that follows.
The Larghetto is more pronouncedly in a style that is Beethoven's own, a cantabile style showing no indebtedness to Haydn, Mozart or any of his artistic forebears. It is straightforwardly songlike and open-hearted, with a noble theme bearing a subtle relationship to that of the preceding movement, and a second one spun out of sheer sunshine.
This is succeeded by the first of his symphonic movements which Beethoven labeled "Scherzo." It is the most mischievous as well as the briefest to be found in any of his symphonies. The finale is friskier and more brilliant still--hardly a dragonlike monster, but clear evidence of Beethoven's confidence in having taken his "new road," and amid all the high spirits one feels the unmistakable warmth of heart that runs through all the preceding movements as perhaps the strongest unifying factor in the work.