The popular image of [Beethoven] 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.
Beethoven’s 8th, 200 years old today.