4 lesser-known Beethoven works you ought to hear but probably haven't

Get clued up ahead of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra's symphony cycle

Celebrating a 190th death anniversary might be stretching the concept of memorials, but when it comes to a Beethoven symphony cycle, there’s no such thing as a bad excuse. But before you race to hear ones you love, consider the ones you hardly know. Here’s a breakdown of Beethoven’s lesser-known works.

Symphony No. 1 (March 30)

Even with all of Beethoven’s natural arrogance, he knew that Haydn and Mozart cast chilly shadows; for a long time, he avoided symphonies and string quartets, which were clearly Haydn’s domain. Beethoven finished his first symphony in 1800, which honoured his debt to his predecessors (something he never managed to do in real life), yet foreshadowed what was to come.

The piece begins in a nebulous tonic, only finding the key of C twenty bars later; this was shocking to his contemporaries but remains an exciting opening. His third movement is labelled menuetto, but the frenetic pace bears little resemblance to the stately minuet Haydn had codifed as symphonic movement number three. Instead, this set the tone for the scherzos (musical jokes) the composer later made his own. Furthermore, the piece’s rapidity is born of Beethoven’s short, simple phrases he puts through musical gymnastics, a style that became his signature (remember the fifth?). A crowd-pleaser then, now, and always, Symphony No. 1 shows you where it all began.

Symphony No. 2 (March 30)

After six years of doctors’ visits and painful examinations, Beethoven finally accepted that his intermittent hearing loss would only get worse. Known then as a piano virtuoso and one of history’s best improvisers, he lived in terror of discovery from friends and enemies alike, turning natural isolationism into misanthropy and deep melancholia.

In despair, he penned the now-famous Heiligenstadt Testament, an unsent letter to his brothers about his deafness and thoughts of suicide. But the composer survived, saying ‘Only my art held me back. It seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that was in me.’

Production in the form of the second symphony continued apace, which turned out to be the joyful, humorous distraction he must have needed. By the standards of the day, it is lengthy, dense, and sometimes vulgar – one critic described it as a ‘hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die.’ But to modern ears, the second represented Beethoven’s final connection with classicism before he produced his third – and changed Western music forever.

Symphony No. 4 (March 31)

The staggering, titanic power of both Beethoven’s third and fifth symphonies made his sweet, melodic fourth the least played of his symphonic canon. Furthermore, the year 1806 was perhaps the composer’s most fecund; in addition to the aforementioned symphonies, he also produced the Razumovsky string quartets, the opera Fidelio, his violin concerto, and his fourth piano concerto.

With the exception of the sixth, Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies lack the box-office draw that his odd-numbered symphonies have enjoyed for centuries. The joyful but unassuming fourth had to struggle for attention; even today, it is only recorded in Beethoven cycles. But its genius does not go unnoticed. James M Keller, writing for the San Francisco Symphony, says that had this been written by a Beethoven contemporary, ‘it would be exalted as a supreme achievement of orchestral writing, towering above anything else in their catalogues’. And Schumann one of the fourth's earliest defenders, labelled it 'a slender Grecian Maiden between two Nordic giants'.

Symphony No. 8 (Sunday 2)

While Haydn and Mozart saw themselves as court craftsmen, in his mind, Beethoven was an artist. ‘What is in my heart must come out, and so I write it down,’ he told his student Carl Czerny. This makes both the second and the eighth symphonies’ compositional process even more mysterious; as we have seen, he created the effervescent second during his encroaching deafness and the Heiligenstadt Testament. The eighth is even more cheerful, more sparkling, and more comic, with unanswered questions and wild experimentation, and yet this was born in the shadow of his most famous letter, Immortal Beloved.

The addressee is still unknown, and is a source of great debate among Beethoven scholars. If, as many suggest, it was the composer’s friend’s wife Antonie Brentano, it may explain the hopelessness that seeps through every line. ‘My angel, my all, my very self ... can you change the fact that you are not wholly mine, I not wholly thine ... Is not our love a heavenly structure, and also as firm as the vault of heaven ...’ Whoever this dark lady may be, her unobtainability seemed to convince Beethoven he would die alone, and he sunk into a deep depression – but not before he penned the sunny eighth, one of his favourite works.

Sandwiched between seven and nine, this compact and intricate piece never received its due attention, but Beethoven had a simple explanation: ‘That’s because it’s so much better than the [seventh].’ Decide for yourself.

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra is at SHOAC from Thursday 30 March to Sunday 2 April at 7.30pm. See full event details below.

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