Beethoven's Punk-Rock 8th Symphony

200 years old today, it remains a gonzo, satirical, life-affirming masterpiece that never quite got its due.
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Ludwig van Beethoven may have been the most serious guy in all of classical music.

The popular image of him is one of heroism, severity, and backs aching for the lash as musical commandments are delivered from on high. Few works in the history of art are as bracingly intense as a goodly chunk of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for instance, to say nothing of the late-period string quartets, music that, frankly, the 19th century wasn’t ready for. The opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony might as well be a stand-in for the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, such is their uncompromising primacy. Beethoven’s work, as people tend to think of it, is music that just keeps coming at you, an ever-advancing sea that no coast can withstand.

Most of the time, that is. But there was also the occasion when Beethoven, in the midst of a personal—and odd—life crisis, opted to create a work to please madcaps, jesters, and wiseasses alike.

I’m talking about the Eighth Symphony. It’s arguably Beethoven’s most overlooked, coming as it does before the world-beating Ninth, and clocking in at a rapid 26 minutes. It was the last symphony from Beethoven’s middle period, receiving its premiere 200 years ago on February 24, 1814, in Vienna. And it is absolutely bonkers, mad, brave, cheekily pugnacious, punchy, and akin to what Lear’s Fool, Samuel Beckett, and a young Mozart might have come up with if those three ever got together to have a musical bash.

Normally, you hear a work by Beethoven and the soul is roiled, and maybe you have to sit and gather yourself for some time afterwards. But the Eighth makes you want to head out on the town for a few beers with the man himself. While his other symphonies have a way of unfurling so that the listener progresses from segment to segment, with some recast and recalled along the way, the Eighth doesn’t feel like a journey. A lot is going on at once, allowing you to direct your attention where best you see fit in a given moment. It’s like life that way.

That the Eighth Symphony should feel like this may well have something to do with Beethoven’s domestic arrangement as he was composing it. His hearing almost gone, in 1812 he moved in with his younger brother, Johann, in an attempt to bust up Johann’s burgeoning relationship with his housekeeper (Ludwig held some cherished beliefs on what he considered unseemly). Johann gave his brother a calling card with the words “Land Proprietor” on it by way of title. Ludwig, the wag, countered with one of his own billing himself as “Brain Proprietor.”

The backdrop of love and would-be love led Beethoven, the (likely jealous) bachelor, to contrast his daily scoldings and polemics with nightly writing of music that was filled with in-jokes, loud, clanging notes, breakneck tempos, and devil-may-care transpositions of styles, forms, and eras.

The first movement has no introduction, just as the entire work has no dedication, the supposition being that Beethoven’s doing this one in large part for himself. Right away, you want to dance, and folk rhythms and minuet strains lend a rustic sensibility, like it’s time to knock back some ales at a barn gathering or whatever doubled as one in Vienna. Convivial.

The humor carries over to the second movement, in which Beethoven the master of severity takes a turn as King of the Jape, basically, by mimicking the sound of the newly invented metronome. The device was devised by Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a man who loved to tinker and come up with ideas, many of which must have seemed outlandish.

Beethoven dug this metronome thing though, especially insofar as he could make fun of it. He does so by triggering this highly regimented rhythm, as though the score were now serving as its own draconian musical taskmaster, quick to rap knuckles. To hear Beethoven in comic riff mode is to do a kind of musical double take, as in, dude, you’re the Sonata Pathétique guy who doesn’t want his brother hooking up with his housekeeper? Of course, do one thing unsurpassingly well, and people tend to think you can do nothing else. But in all of Beethoven’s output, there is nothing that better gives the lie in these matters than the Eighth.

The third movement is a quick spritzing of pure joy, with Beethoven, who had suffered in love on account of his class status as a commoner, reveling in rough-and-ready folk dance music. This is musical egalitarianism, with supple virtuosity—it’s nuts how easy melody came to Beethoven, and how he could move from one strain of it to another—married to the need everyone has to kick their heels up every now and again.

Come the fourth and final movement, Beethoven’s enters Silly Symphonies mode while delivering a master class in sonata-rondo form. At one point, the principle theme is jolted by a seemingly out-of-place note that turns out to be the root of another chord in a different key, which is then sounded super loudly—a joke, almost. Actually, what’s going on with that root here in the fourth movement of the Eighth isn’t a long ways off from what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would get up to in the mid-20th century with bebop.

Alas, the Eighth was not received nearly so well as the Seventh. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny thought the master would be all aggrieved over this, but our man was unshaken, closing the matter by saying this all came down to the Eighth being that much better, which is tantamount to concluding that everyone who didn’t like it could go suck an egg. Johann ended up marrying the housekeeper, so that didn’t work out for Ludwig, but he got the Eighth out of the bargain, and she’s the beauty that just keep on giving. 

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Colin Fleming is the author of Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep and Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories. He also writes for Rolling Stone, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Boston Globe.

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