Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) spent the summer months of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, in Beethoven’s time a hot-spring spa destination outside of Vienna. His hope was that an extended break from the noise and bustle of Vienna might improve his health in general and his declining hearing in particular. There had been signs of growing deafness for some time, indications which he had done his best to ignore and conceal. As his condition deteriorated the composer came to realize that he would probably lose his hearing.
Beethoven was emotionally devastated, terrified, and deeply ashamed. He wrote a highly emotional letter intended for his brothers, in which he gave vent to his feelings. It speaks of “blighted hope” and “courage disappeared” and is a tragically poignant description of his depression. Especially heartbreaking is his recounting of a moment when “someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” This famous Heiligenstadt Testament was not discovered until after Beethoven’s death.
The summer in Heiligenstadt and the letter he wrote may have served as a kind of emotional release, since the Symphony in D major he composed at that time bears no trace of the dark emotions at play within him. Its highly successful first performance took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803.
In the surprisingly substantial introduction to the first movement, the opening call to attention alternates with soulful musings, all the while creating an engaging sense of expectation. Then it’s off to the races in a vivacious and carefree Allegro. In the serene, glowing meditation of the second movement, Beethoven demonstrates how convincingly expressive he can be all the while displaying his love for surprises and sudden shifts in dynamics.
Movement 3, the first official scherzo (playful, joking music) in a Beethoven symphony is less genteel and more rhythmically complex than any comparable minuet movement by Haydn or Mozart. Its character lies closer to a country fair than to any ballroom. Wind instruments take the spotlight in the central Trio and the party continues and intensifies in the truly rambunctious final movement.