The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Thomas May

There's a cliché that the basic character of each Beethoven's symphonies can be instantly gleaned by the number: the odd-numbered ones are supposed to be the heavyweight, heroic works, while the even-numbered ones complement them as relatively more "relaxed." (A variant on the old-fashioned, oddly gendered custom of ascribing "masculinity" to the first theme versus the supposedly "feminine" lyrical second theme of a stereotypical sonata form?) Add to this the commonplace assumption that Beethoven's real symphonic breakthrough, after clearing his throat with the First, really happens with the Eroica, and you can understand why the Second Symphony has been given such short shrift in the Beethoven canon. Yet when approached without these biases - and much the same holds for the Eighth, so overshadowed by the Ninth - this is a work that yields enormous pleasure. Even more, a dynamic performance underscores just what a radical composition the Second actually is.

To be sure, the Eroica rightfully claims its status as one of the great turning points in Western music. But the Second Symphony belongs to a larger constellation of works that were gestating in Beethoven's psyche at the same time, during a period of intense emotional crisis. (Beethoven likely put his finishing touches on the score while he was already preoccupied with the Eroica.) The immediate cause of that crisis was his acknowledgment of the reality of his growing deafness. The composer grew desperate in his search for healing, trying hydrotherapy, herbs, even galvanism. But eventually he abandoned all hope for a cure. And in the fall of 1802, when he was still at work on the Second, he wrote the moving "Heilgenstadt Testament," a document that records his suicidal depression and his resolve to overcome it through commitment to his art.

It was while working through this period of crisis that Beethoven completed the Second Symphony, which he dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, one of his leading patrons and also the dedicatee of his official Opus One (the three piano trios of 1793). The Second bears some marks of his emotional turmoil despite the often exuberant and beautiful surface of its music. And it radiates the excitement of invention, of imagining new ways to articulate the Classical mechanics Beethoven had learned from his predecessors. The first movement, writes the biographer Lewis Lockwood, "leaps far beyond anything in the First Symphony, even the earlier work's excellent Menuetto, in dynamic action and dramatization of ideas."

With a slow introduction of unusual amplitude, Beethoven already intimates his ambitious plans for this new symphonic canvas. The rhetorical power of dotted rhythms is nothing new, but notice how Beethoven concentrates this into a forceful, shocking outburst, suddenly in D minor, that uncannily foreshadows the main theme of the Ninth's first movement. The main Allegro, like the Eroica, makes astonishingly wide-ranging use of the simplest elements, outlining a triadic shape that moves upward and back for its main theme.

Already Beethoven shows his ability to balance exciting detail on the surface with large-scale architecture - traits that become essential to implementing the "heroic" style. The whole first movement manifests a grand sense of proportions, with harmonic tensions as their lever in the usual pivotal moments: the transition from development back to reprise and the new vista provided by the coda, which is here notably extended, like the introduction. Listen closely and for a moment you'll hear a "pre-echo" of the tumultuous angst that receives fuller expression in the Eroica's funeral march.

The Larghetto (a very unusual slow tempo indication for Beethoven) is a good reminder of the almost Italianately sensuous - or perhaps Schubertian - love of melody that crops up from time to time in his work. No wonder this radiantly beautiful music was fetishized by his contemporaries. (Reviews of the work as a whole, however, were filled with reservations about such issues as length and chided the composer for "overwriting.") Omitting trumpet and timpani from the Larghetto's sound world, Beethoven allows his lyricism to unfold in a relaxed sonata form garlanded with elaborate passages for the woodwinds. The Scherzo - and this is the first time Beethoven uses that designation in a symphony, even if the third movement of the First is a scherzo in spirit - plays off the most basic contrast between loud and soft with an almost childlike exuberance. The theme proceeds in a kind of stop-action pattern that sets up a wonderful contrast with the mellifluous Trio.

Instead of a lightweight wrap-up, Beethoven gives us a boldly vigorous finale that Lockwood rightly notes "outdoes the first movement in energy and originality." Here already is a strategy that will become one of his most recognized signatures: from a motif that seems utterly trivial, even eccentric, Beethoven generates an irresistible momentum that carries through an entire movement. Indeed, the manic tics and trills of this idea have inspired all sorts of digestive similes, from hiccups to borborygmic distress.

Lockwood turns to electricity: "Essential to the conception is that the finale should open in high tension and then extend and hold the hot current in motion right to the end" - where, again, we find yet another extended coda. Of the overall radical character of the Second, Lockwood writes: "The symphony crosses new boundaries, moving into a range of dramatic expression in which the strongest possible contrasts occur in unexpected immediacy... This symphony signaled that from now on in Beethoven's works power and lyricism in extreme forms were to be unleashed as never before...and that contemporaries, ready or not, would have to reshape their expectations to keep up with him."