The so-called romantic period of music, in contrast with the previous, classical period is, if nothing else, a period of reaction.1 This reaction was not limited to the arts but was, rather, more universal in nature, an overall paradigm shift in which the western worldview was in flux.2 As is often the case, changing philosophical morays resulted in foundational changes in other areas of thought and practice and resulted in the musical product of the period now referred to as the romantic period.
It was at the interim of these two, opposing periods that Beethoven emerged and as such he is often credited as being a major transitory figure, an issue which is part of an ongoing debate. In the following discussion, an argument for Beethoven as transitory figure in the interim between the classical and romantic periods will be discussed in light of his “Eighth Symphony.”3 Before proceeding further, it will be helpful to inform of the contrasts between the two periods in question.
The classical period was a period of formal, i.e. ordered and rational music. Music was penned in what was held to be a common, universal language and thus an expression that varied little by way of nationalistic influence and difference. The musical theory of the day was sufficient such as little needed be added and as such, a simpler style in which an emphasis upon structure and clarity as prime aesthetic qualities emerged.4 Primary musical qualities of the classical period are: affective contrast between movements, homophonic texture, and a principled development of the sonata.5 Favored by the classic composers were:
…multimovement genres such as the symphony, concerto sonata, and quartet, and the idea of a musical work developed into a balanced, complementary, set of movements: a powerful and intellectual first movement (always in sonata-allegro form), a lyric slow movement, a dancelike third movement, and a brilliant finale.6
Some characteristics of compositions of the romantic period, in contrast to the musical works of the classical period are: a reactionary disorder toward the formalism of classicalism, emotional intensity and expression vs. the affective moderation of classical works, structural dynamism vs. classical structural stasis, an increase in harmonic color over classical homophony, imputation of individual and nationalistic themes over classical universalism, to name but some of the more clearly contrasting points.7 One might suggest a whimsical heir in romanticism vs. the reserved austerity of classicalism.
In Beethoven’s “Eighth Symphony” there is clearly a sense of disorderliness and a dynamic intensity that at once counter positions this particular piece from classicism and, arguably, places it among the catalog of romantic compositions.8 This is manifest in the very opening, an intense and overpowering introduction, which then proceeds to give way to rising and falling whimsicality throughout.
An additional, more concrete factor in classifying the “Eighth Symphony” as a romantic period composition is the work’s very uniqueness. Not a uniqueness solely based on romantic parameters (which it does satisfy) but in terms of Beethoven’s own catalog. Of the works of Beethoven, this particular, whimsical symphony was not at all as well received as were his earlier works and this so even among some of the more recent works of the same period. In fact, the initial reaction to the piece was one of confusion due to its interlocution between his heavier Seventh and Ninth symphonies.9
In contrast to Beethoven’s previous pieces, which do tend toward a classicist classification (he does clearly follow his teacher, Haydn), the “Eighth Symphony” manifests no traditional (on classical terms) progression from a light introduction, movement to tension and or climax, and then a gradual return to baseline. From the symphony’s outset, the emotional stage is set and there is a consistent emotiveness to the piece not found in works deemed “classical.” Contrary to the classicists’ proffering a host of affective qualities in their works, the romanticists preferred adhering to one affect and the “Eighth Symphony” does just this.
The above considered, it seems easy to place the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eighth Symphony” under the classificatory umbrella of romanticism as it manifest the definitive qualities of works of the period, e.g., disorderliness, intensity, dynamism, emotiveness, a certain irrationality, color, a level of arbitrariness, uniqueness, and an essence that is truly organic in nature.10 The piece does seem to be lacking in any obvious qualities that would allow one to classify the work as classic.
However, to argue that Beethoven, or even the “Eighth Symphony,” were transitory entities between the two periods seems a stretch, and this so in light of Beethoven’s previous catalog of work and those published post this particular symphony. Beethoven clearly sits among the pantheon of the great, classical composers and the majority of his catalog resides among the great classical works. But definitely, whether intentionally or otherwise, the “Eighth Symphony” manifests, if nothing else, the spirit of romanticism such that this particular piece alone could call into question Beethoven’s allegiance to the musical zeitgeist of a an era past or one, in his time, in bloom.
Gibbs, Christopher H. “Notes on Beethoven’s Eight Symphony.” Web. 12 June 2006.
Randel, Don Michael, ed. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999.
Rowell, Lewis. Thinking About Music. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.
Sahakian, William S. History of Philosophy from Earliest Times to Present. New York: Harper
and Row, 1968.
1 The classical period lasted from approximately early 18th century into early 19th century with the romantic period occurring between the early 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the clear contrast in both philosophy and manifestation of product of both periods, the transitory period was a gradual one. Ludwig von Beethoven is often considered a key transient figure of the in-between era.
2 The crux of the shift was, as is often the case, philosophical as the rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza (itself a reaction to a mortified scholastic philosophy) was countered by the British empiricists (e.g., Hume) and the German idealists (e.g., Kant). Over reason, the senses now reigned supreme (though Kant would in fact argue for a synthesis of reason and sense as the more profitable epistemology). Art was now something more than that which would be simply parsed and reduced per the rational model but rather more emotive and transcendent in essence. For a more thorough account, see William S. Sahakian in History of Philosophy From Earliest Times to Present, 93-180.
3 Beethoven composed this particular symphony in 1812 at the crossroads of the classical and romantic periods.
4 See Lewis Rowell’s Thinking About Music, 113-114.
5 The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 141.
6 Rowell, 114.
7 See Rowell, 117-119.
8 Rowell, 117.
9 See Christopher Gibbs’ “Notes on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.”
10 Rowell, 117-119.