Program notes: Beethoven’s Second Symphony

Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

Siegfried Idyll, WWV103

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Composed: 1870
Length: c. 18 minutes
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, and strings

Wagner wrote the Siegfried Idyll in the first months of his marriage to Cosima (Franz Liszt’s daughter). He romantically presented the blissful work to her on December 25, 1870, in celebration of both her birthday and that of their youngest son the year before. The musicians quietly set up on the staircase of the couple’s Swiss lakeside villa in Tribschen, and Cosima awoke to the gently murmuring, dawn-like opening strains of the piece. She was moved to tears by the gesture, later writing: “When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music!… [It] consecrated our Tribschen forever.”

Wagner composed the music during an intensified period of labor on his epic Ring cycle of operas. He completed Siegfried, the third in the cycle, in 1871. It is not surprising, then, that there are previews in the Idyll of music that would end up in the opera Siegfried. The music is as tender as Wagner ever wrote, working in allusions to the couple’s peaceful existence and joy in welcoming their son to the world with lullabies and pastoral scenes.

What to listen for

Among other Easter eggs in the score, Wagner sneaks in references to the “Sleeping Brünnhilde” theme from the second Ring opera, Die Walküre—listen for the flute entrance.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed: 1801-1802
Length: c. 32 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

It is generally acknowledged that Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 3, the groundbreaking Eroica, cast a substantial shadow over every symphony composed thereafter, whether by Beethoven or by his successors. The enveloping influence of that work also created inevitable comparisons to previous works, Beethoven’s first two symphonies in particular. The listener might be tempted to dismiss the first two efforts as practice pieces—dry runs for the great masterworks yet to come. However, hearing the early symphonies with fresh, unbiased ears should convince us otherwise. Symphony No. 2 in particular is a bold stroke, a work of creative innovation with unexpected harmonic ingenuity and thematic unity that marked a break from the primacy of Classical ideals of balance and grace that informed—and often governed—works in the genre at the time. One 1804 listener remarked that it was “unlike any symphony that has ever been made known… [with] an astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas.” Beethoven was already stretching boundaries and recalibrating formal expectations with his second symphony. It no longer felt as if the extreme emotions of Sturm und Drang were being expressed through structure alone; instead, emotional aims are shaping innovations in the traditional Classical form.

The piece was composed over the course of the year leading up to Beethoven’s famous Heilegenstadt Testament, an unsent letter detailing the anguish over his alarming hearing loss. The work’s infectious joy seems at odds with this period of despair, but the reasons for this might be found in the letter itself. Music was Beethoven’s salvation, as he wrote, “I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”

What to listen for

  • First movement: After the long slow introduction, focus on the low strings, which obsess on a five-note upwardturn motto (refashioned from trills and filigree material in the intro) that becomes the thematic glue tying the entire movement together.
  • Second movement: The catchy main theme’s opening is recast in a minor key to begin the development section, setting up an extended harmonic excursion.
  •  Third movement: There’s an abundance of humor in Beethoven’s first symphonic Scherzo. Listen for it, for example, in the contrasting Trio section, where Beethoven splits the orchestra into bouncy winds and lumbering strings, treated separately in a comical exchange.
  • Fourth movement: The uproarious finale of this work begins with a sort of orchestral sneeze and ends with sneaky tiptoeing, followed by a tumbling misstep.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi