It is the only one of Beethoven’s symphonies that starts straight off without any introduction, haughty and radiant, coming straight to the point with the main theme. Beethoven’s Eighth received its first public performance in a concert that also featured his Seventh – not an auspicious start. In comparison with that bundle of energy, the newcomer must have seemed a very moderate affair in every sense, hardly worth mention; the question was whether Beethoven was flirting with his own past or maybe was paying homage to Haydn. In the first place, there was the small scale of the symphony – the shortest of the nine – and then there were the unusually modest middle movements: an Allegretto scherzando replacing the slow movement and an out-of-fashion minuet instead of the scherzo. Both of them are a lot less simple than they seem – the ticking accompaniment from the wind instruments in the Allegretto keeps getting held up by wilfully rebellious strings, the minuet plays about with entries off cue, and the trio is thrown off balance by an ungainly solo cello and strange accents in the bass. The joke in the outer movements is more subtle; their artful disappointment of expectations, their formal and harmonic peculiarities, not to say tricks, will escape all but the best informed of listeners, who will know deviations from the norm when they hear them. Beethoven’s comment on the way his Eighth Symphony fell flat was short and to the point: it was “simply much better” than the celebrated Seventh.
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