When Ludwig van Beethoven’s Second Symphony premiered, to the Viennese public it was simply the sequel to a First Symphony by an up-and-coming composer who had studied with Joseph Haydn. Beethoven mostly drafted it in 1802 in the suburb of Heiligenstadt, where he had retreated on doctor’s advice to protect his worsening hearing from the commotion of the city. The first performance was on the Tuesday before Easter of the following year, at the Theater an der Wien.
Like many early 19th-century premieres, it was a do-it-yourself production: Beethoven conducted, played piano, booked the theater, and sold the tickets (drawing criticism for doubling the usual prices). The program also included a reprise of his First Symphony and premieres of two other works: the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s patron and the dedicatee of the Second Symphony, showed up with lunch baskets to fuel the orchestra through a grueling dress rehearsal, leading up to a still barely-cooked performance that evening.
Early reviews of the symphony ranged from ludicrously scathing—“a gross enormity, an immense wounded serpent, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and bleeding to death”—to prescient admiration—“a noteworthy, colossal work, of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few… it demands to be played again and yet again by even the most accomplished orchestra, until the astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas become closely enough connected, rounded out, and emerge like a great unity.”
Deep into the 19th century, even in the shadow of his later works, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 still held a special place. Writing in the 1830s, Hector Berlioz described:
Everything in this symphony is genial, even the warlike sallies of the first Allegro being exempt from violence, so that one can trace in them no more than the youthful ardor of a noble heart which retains intact the most beautiful illusions of life.
And in 1896, the English writer and music aficionado George Grove observed:
In some respects the Second Symphony is, though not the greatest, the most interesting of the nine. It shows with peculiar clearness how firmly Beethoven grasped the structural forms which had been impressed on instrumental music when he began to practise it; while it contains more than a promise of the strong individuality which possessed him.
Grove’s insight holds up—this is Beethoven before he shattered the established models of Mozart and Haydn, so the fact that it still sounds so much like Beethoven, even without brazen reinvention, affirms the strength of his voice.
As for Berlioz, most listeners will agree with his cheerful assessment of the music. But he could not be more wrong about Beethoven’s mindset at the time. No beautiful illusions there. While staying in Heiligenstadt, on October 6, 1802, Beethoven drafted a confessional letter and will for his two brothers, lamenting his progressive hearing loss, and describing the immense pain and social embarrassment it caused him.
I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished.… 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. Such incidents drove me almost to despair, a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.
Beethoven did not share the letter, and it was only discovered among his papers after he died nearly 25 years later. Today the “Heiligenstadt Testament” is often interpreted as marking the divide between his early and middle periods. Out of this moment of despair came his so-called “heroic” style—launched in earnest with the Eroica Symphony of 1803, but warmed-up to here in the Second.
Beethoven always liked a bold opening, and he writes a single fortissimo pitch—D—for the whole orchestra. For an unharmonized moment, we can’t guess the mode or mood of what’s to come: major or minor, contented or anguished? Quickly the woodwinds lean to the tranquil side, while the strings urge the music forward. The mid-tempo introduction peaks with a fortissimo descent in snappy rhythm—if it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s nearly identical to the opening idea of the Ninth Symphony. The violins then tumble into the energetic Allegro.
The Larghetto mixes lyricism with fidgetiness—as if the music is growing impatient with its own beauty. “What more delicious than the alternate lazy grace and mysterious humour of the slow movement,” asked Grove in his study of the symphony.
The third movement is the piece’s one overt break from tradition—this is the first Viennese symphony where the usual minuet is replaced by a scherzo. In a progression that recurs in music from Bach to bebop, dance styles transform into just-for-listening music. Nobody was dancing to symphony minuets even in Mozart’s day, as they picked up speed and grew less predictable in phrasing. Haydn eventually retitled some equivalent string quartet movements “Scherzo” (meaning “joke” in Italian), and Beethoven severed the connection to the powdered-wig past by doing the same in this symphony.
The finale carries on with rambunctious contrasts—a spark, a blaze, a luxurious cello tune that expands to the violins and winds before catching fire again. Grove hailed the ending as “pure Beethoven, a region full of magic and mystery, into which no one before ever led the hearers of music.”