Composed as the 18th Century drew to a close, Beethoven’s first two piano concertos and his first two symphonies show the influence of Mozart and Haydn.
His 1st Symphony was first performed in Vienna in the spring of 1800, and No2 under the composer’s direction in the same city on the 5th April, 1803. It was not favourably received. He had been considered daring for opening the 1st Symphony in C Major with a minor 7th chord. The 2nd Symphony sent further shock waves through his critics, not only because of the breadth of the opening adagio, but also the wide-ranging modulations of the finale. These were considered to be audacious in the extreme.
The symphony, however, is cast in the classic mould of four movements. Although a slow introduction was not always a feature of their symphonies, comparison may be made with Mozart’s Nos. 36 and 38, and Haydn’s 93 and 97.
With regard to the almost obligatory minuet movement, Beethoven is already showing his own hand. In No1 the movement was marked “Minuet”, but to be played “Allegro molto e vivace”, thus moving away from a stately dance. Here in the Second Symphony the movement is renamed “Scherzo”, but remains in the classic form of “minuet and trio”.
The Second Symphony is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, french horns and trumpets, plus strings and timpani. All four movements are in sonata form. In this symphony Beethoven’s independent spirit shines out. It is the dawning of romanticism in music. Classicism will continue to be respected, but just two years hence Beethoven will present to the world his mighty “Eroica” symphony.
1st Movement. ADAGIO MOLTO – ALLEGRO CON BRIO
The slow introduction is broadly laid out in three sections. It moves from the key of D through BI and back via a cadence in A, enabling the introduction to glide effortlessly into the Allegro now firmly established in D major. The first theme is announced by the violas softly, but rhythmically vital, the whole orchestra joining at the 14th bar. The second theme is given to clarinets, bassoons and horns, and, like the first theme, is introduced softly.
The development treats the two principal themes in order. Each is then restated in turn, until an extensive Coda brings the movement to a strong and positive conclusion.
2nd Movement. LARGHETTO
This consists mainly of two themes. The first rises and is given out by the strings, soon to be taken over by the clarinets and bassoons. The second theme appears softly at the 48th bar, again in the strings. In contrast it is falling and a touch melancholic.
The development section is richly harmonised, and the dynamics more evenly spread. Following repeats of the two principal themes, richly harmonised, the movement concludes with a thirteen-bar coda based on the opening theme.
This movement shows Beethoven in one of his most innocent and tenderest moods. This is despite any tension which may have been engendered by the tapestry of his song-like themes through crescendo and diminuendo.
3rd Movement. SCHERZO
As previously mentioned, this movement is composed in the traditional minuet form. Consequently it consists of first and second subjects (or themes) each in turn repeated, followed by a trio section, again of two subjects and repeated. Finally, a reprise of the two minuet subjects without repeats brings the movement to an end.
This movement, capricious and full of dynamic variation, is a perfect foil between the previous movement and the bravura of the finale.
4th Movement. FINALE – ALLEGRO MOLTO
In this movement, Beethoven presents us with two main themes. This inherent sonata form is extended by the recurrence of the first theme throughout, thus adding a Rondo form into the movement.
The first theme is set in a rhythmical frame; the second is more song-like – “Cantabile”. The development section is dynamically vital, until hushed tones and a pause prepare the ground for a restatement of the first and second themes. The movement is rounded off by a tremendous Coda, twice as long as the development section, during which Beethoven introduces a completely new theme.