29 Mar 2012

Beethoven – Symphony No. 2 in D Major

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Beethoven spent the summer months of 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt. The hope was that an extended break from the bustle of Vienna might improve his health in general and his hearing in particular. As we now know, his deafness would not be curable by any amount of rest. We also know that two very different utterances date from the following October – a new symphony and a desperate testament.  

THE MUSIC – The famous Heiligenstadt Testament was not discovered until after Beethoven’s death. It speaks of “blighted hope” and “courage disappeared” and is a tragically poignant description of his depression. Especially heartbreaking is his recounting of a moment when “someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” How then do we reconcile the light-hearted, often humorous 2nd Symphony that was completed in tandem with such a testament? It could be that Beethoven did most of the finish work on the piece while he was still optimistic about the healing effects of the countryside. It could also be that his visit to “rock-bottom” uncovered a hidden well of fortitude and that the reason Beethoven hid his testament from view was because it had awakened a burning desire to fulfill his destiny regardless of his limits. Whatever the case may be, the 2nd Symphony marked the beginning of a paradoxically productive period for Beethoven, a man who often fell to inactivity when fate betrayed him. The music is playful, witty and energetic. It lacks the stormy, furrowed-brow qualities of the 3rd and 5th symphonies but has plenty of its own ingenuity to offer. Beethoven replaced the traditional minuet movement with a scherzo and crafted a finale so quirky it elicited one of greatest reviewer comments in music history, referring to a “wounded dragon that refuses to die and, though bleeding in the finale, furiously thrashes about with its stiffened tail.” Hilarious…and wrong.                               

THE WORLD – The United States Military Academy at West Point was founded in 1802, as was the French Legion of Honor. Also that year, Vietnam’s the last ruling family, the Nyugen dynasty, began its 143 year rule.  

THE CONNECTION – It has been a while since the Utah Symphony performed Beethoven 2 on a Masterworks concert. The year was 1996 and Joseph Silverstein was on the podium.