“Light-hearted” is not a word one normally applies to works by Ludwig van Beethoven, but it perfectly suits his Symphony No. 8. Falling between the exultant Seventh and the monumental Ninth, Beethoven’s “little symphony in F” seems out of place. It is the shortest of his symphonies and the one that most closely follows standard classical practice as developed by Haydn and Mozart (at least until the surprising fourth movement). For the attentive listener, beneath its genial surface the nimble Eighth abounds in unusual sounds, intentional “wrong” notes, catastrophes cleverly avoided, and other musical jokes, revealing a side of the composer rarely on display in his oeuvre.
The Eighth’s joviality is all the more remarkable considering the circumstances of Beethoven’s life surrounding its composition. Beethoven was grappling with profound deafness, legal battles with his sister-in-law, financial issues, a turbulent relationship with his nephew Karl, and unrequited love (for the mysterious “Immortal Beloved”). Yet, there is no trace of these travails in the Eighth; rather the music finds its composer in a good-humored and expansive mood. The piece is energetic – it has no slow movement – but never aggressive or overbearing. However knockabout the symphony seems at times (deliberately so) Beethoven is always firmly in command of his craft, and the high spirits are leavened with beautifully lyrical passages.
Beethoven wrote both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in quick succession in 1812, but while the Seventh was immediately proclaimed a masterpiece, the Eighth was met with indifference. According to contemporaries the composer was greatly annoyed by this reaction, insisting that the Eighth was the better symphony. Over time many critics and conductors have come to agree with Beethoven’s assessment, and the Eighth’s reputation continues to grow. Whatever its merits for professional musicians and for critics, for listeners one attraction emerges supreme: Symphony No. 8 is, quite simply, a lot of fun. One gets the sense that Beethoven relaxed from his normal preoccupation with posterity and was enjoying himself, encouraging performers and audience to do the same.