Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 5 April 1803
On 6 October 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna, Beethoven wrote an impassioned letter to his brothers Carl and Johann. Including instructions that it should be read after his death, the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ describes in bleak terms the composer’s despair at the onset of deafness.
‘How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection?’ he wrote. ‘…What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.’
It was also while staying at Heiligenstadt over the summer months of that year that Beethoven composed the bulk of his Second Symphony. Does the composer reflect in this work the frustrations expressed in his letter? In fact, cast in a sunny D major, the overall mood of the Second is largely upbeat.
Here and there, though, there are moments that point towards the growling and fist-thumping composer of Beethoven’s later years. The score is scattered with brutal sforzandos and sudden, and dramatic, changes of dynamic markings. And listen out, too, for the moment at the end of the exposition in the long first movement when the key unexpectedly shifts from A major to an unusual and ever-so-slightly disconcerting D minor.
Beethoven's Second Symphony, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
under Daniel Barenboim at the 2012 BBC Proms
Taken as a whole, Beethoven’s Second is by no means a game-changer in the course of classical music – that would come with the Eroica two years later. There are, though, already plenty of signs here that he was itching to go his own way. Take for instance, the third movement, where he ventures a step further along the path he’d already began to tread in the First Symphony – where tradition would normally place a courtly and graceful minuet and trio, here Beethoven presents us with a decidedly rustic scherzo.
And then there is the finale’s coda. Why follow convention by finishing with a charming little endpiece, when there’s the opportunity to go out in a blaze of timpani- and trumpet-adorned triumph? Here was a precedent that he would continue in the symphonies to follow.
And the Second Symphony’s reception? Not great, with the descriptions of some critics almost matching the colour and inventiveness of the work itself. Complaining about its ‘barbaric chords’, Paris’s Tablettes de Polymnie reckoned that it sounded ‘as if doves and crocodiles were locked up together’. Vienna’s Zeitung für die elegante Welt, meanwhile, described it as ‘a hideously wounded, writhing dragon that refuses to die’. Posterity has treated it more kindly.
Skrowaczewski and his Saarbrucken players bring a rare fire and fury to the first movement. And few can match their bonhomie in the following two movements – as the music bounces from orchestral section to section, masterfully paced by the conductor, one gets the impression of players thoroughly enjoying each others’, and Beethoven’s, company.
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanisław Skrowaczewski
Words by Jeremy Pound. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.