The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda



Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-1812)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn.

Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna.


In early October 1812, the Linzer Musikzeitung carried the following announcement: "We have had the long-wished-for pleasure of having in our metropolis for several days the Orpheus and greatest musical poet of our time...." This "Orpheus" was Beethoven, and he had descended on Linz as the last stop in a summer spent taking the waters at Karlsbad, Franzensbrunn and Töplitz in an attempt to relieve various physical ailments. His interest in Linz, however, extended beyond the mineral baths into the private life of his younger brother, Johann. It seems that Johann had acquired a housekeeper, one Therese Obermeyer, and that her duties extended to, as the composer's biographer Thayer put it, "something more." Perhaps as much from jealousy as from moral indignation, the bachelor Beethoven did not approve of either the situation or this particular female (he later dubbed her "Queen of the Night"), and he took it upon himself, Thayer continued, "to meddle in the private concerns of his brother, which he had no more right to do than any stranger." He stirred up a terrific row over this matter, and, after taking his concern to the local authorities, actually was awarded a decision to have Therese thrown out of town. Johann had had about enough by this time, and the upshot of all of Ludwig's intrusions was that his younger brother married the housekeeper after all.

(As an interesting aside about the relationship between the brothers Beethoven, Olin Downes recounted the following anecdote: "It was Johann who, having acquired a handsome property, called on his brother leaving a card which was inscribed, ‘Johann van Beethoven, Gutsbesitzer ["land proprietor"],' which card Beethoven quickly returned, after writing on the back, ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, Hirnbesitzer ["brain proprietor].'")

Beethoven had been installed in an attractive room in Johann's house overlooking the Danube and the surrounding countryside upon his arrival, and he worked on the Eighth Symphony throughout all this unnecessary domestic kerfuffle. Not the slightest hint of the turmoil crept into the music, however. It is actually the most humorous and "unbuttoned," in the composer's own description, of all the symphonies. At that time in his life (he was 42), Beethoven was immensely fond of a certain rough fun and practical jokes, and Sir George Grove believed that "the Eighth Symphony, perhaps more than any other of the nine, is a portrait of the author in his daily life, in his habit as he lived; the more it is studied and heard, the more will he be found there in his most natural and characteristic personality." Certainly this work presents a different view of Beethoven than do its immediate neighbors, and it is this very contrast that helps to bring the man and his creations more fully into focus.

The lighthearted quality of the music is reinforced by another bit of biographical miscellany that attaches to the second movement of the Eighth Symphony. Beethoven had befriended Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, best known as the inventor of the metronome, but famous in his own day as a creator of all sorts of mechanical curiosities. (It was for Mälzel's clangorous "Panharmonicon" that Beethoven wrote the meretricious Wellington's Victory.) Mälzel and Beethoven had appeared at the same dinner party in Vienna some time before the composition of the Eighth Symphony, and Beethoven had scratched out a little vocal canon that evening to parody the tick-tock of the inventor's immortal creation. All the guests joined in a rendition of the round during that soirée using the silly text: "Ta, ta, ta [referring to the tick of the metronome], my dear Mälzel, fare thee well, very well...." The Gemütlichkeit of that evening carried over into the Eighth Symphony, and lies at the heart of the spirit of the second movement, the shortest in all of Beethoven's symphonies.

Beethoven referred to this work as his "little Symphony" in F major. As regards the elapsed time, he was right - only the First Symphony is of comparable brevity in his symphonic output. In effect, however, the work is rather more concentrated than simply short, and it has a greater impact than its duration would seem to allow. Part of the effectual size of the Symphony is achieved by the multiplicity of musical events that it contains, and John N. Burk observed that the quick changes from one idea to another carry with them the underlying current of humor that characterizes the work. "Moods in music," Burk wrote, "are never to be matched by moods outside of it, and humor is no exception. It seems to consist in this Symphony of sudden turns in the course of an even and lyrical flow, breaking in upon formal, almost archaic periods. It is a sudden irregularity showing its head where all is regular - an altered rhythm, an explosion of fortissimo, a foreign note or an unrelated tonality.... Each incongruity becomes right and logical with use; indeed here lies the true individuality and charm of the Symphony." Pitts Sanborn saw a more universal quality in Beethoven's style in the Eighth Symphony: "It is the laughter of a man who has lived and suffered and, scaling the heights, achieved the summit.... Only here and there does a note of rebellion momentarily intrude itself; and here and there, in brief lyrical repose we have ... an intimation of Divinity more than the ear discovers."

The compact sonata form of the opening movement begins without preamble. The opening theme (F major), dance-like if a bit heavy-footed, appears immediately in a vigorous triple meter. The second theme, built on short sequentially rising figures, enters in the surprising tonality of D major, but quickly rights itself into the expected key of C major. The closing group consists of a strong two-beat figure alternating with a swaying, legato line for the woodwinds. The development is concerned with a quick, octave-skip motive and a rather stormy treatment of the main theme. This central section ends with one of the longest passages of sustained fortissimo in the entire Classical literature to herald the recapitulation with a great wave of sound. The long coda comes close to being a second development section in its mood and thematic manipulation.

The second movement is a sonatina - a sonata form without a development section. The imitation of Mälzel's metronome is initiated by the woodwinds, which spend most of the movement pecking away at their single-minded rhythm. The violins present an impeccable music-box melody that has as much charm as it does humor. Charles Rosen, the noted pianist and an excellent commentator on the music of Beethoven's time, observed the passing of an era with this music. "The civilized gaiety of the classical period," he wrote in The Classical Style, "perhaps already somewhat coarsened, makes its last appearances here and in some of the last quartets. After that, wit was swamped by sentiment."

The third movement abandons the scherzo of Beethoven's other symphonies and returns to the archaic dance form of the minuet. Its central trio features horns and clarinets over an arpeggiated accompaniment in the cellos to produce a sonority much admired by Stravinsky for its clear texture and adventurous timbre.

"One of Beethoven's most gigantic creations," is the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey's estimation of the finale. Its length is almost equal to that of the preceding three movements combined, and it does carry a great relative importance in the work's total structure because of the diminutive size of the internal movements. In mood it is joyous, almost boisterous; in form, it is sonata-allegro, with enough repetitions of the main theme thrown in to bring it close to a rondo. The extensive coda actually occupies more time than the development, and maintains the Symphony's bustling energy and high spirits to the end.