Beethoven, Symphony no. 7

Beethoven, Symphony no. 7

June 26, 2017.  Beethoven, Symphony No. 7.  Below is the article by Joseph DuBose on Beethoven’s Symphony no.7.  As always with Beethoven’s symphonies, our problem was in selecting a recording to illustrate it: there are myriads in existence, many of superb quality.  We Beethoven, 1814chose a remastered live recording made by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in 1976.  You can listen to it here.  ♫

Symphony No. 7 in A major

Beethoven completed the Symphony No. 7 in 1812. Four years separated it from the “Pastoral”—the longest span between any of the symphonies thus far. Yet, that interval does not mark a period of lesser creativity in Beethoven’s career. Many important works appeared during that time, including two string quartets (opp. 74 and 95), the music for “Egmont,” “King Stephen,” and the “Ruins of Athens,” the Choral Fantasia, and the F-sharp minor and “Les Adieux” piano sonatas.

Beethoven’s style continued to advance during this period. With each decisive step he brought music closer to embodying the deepest expressions of the human soul. Thus far, his music had embodied the grand, the lofty, the profound, and, quite remarkably, was largely uninfluenced by the day-to-day events of the composer's life. What Beethoven had not yet explored, at least in his symphonies, was humor. Beethoven had always indulged in coarse jokes, puns, and nicknames, but in his later years, his humor became even more pronounced. He even had a special word for his unique, off-putting behavior: aufgeknöptf, or “unbuttoned.” In one such instance of this behavior, Beethoven, when visiting his friend Breuning, would, if having just come in from the rain, take off his hat and dash water off it in all possible directions, without the slightest regard for what furniture or people may have been nearby. Another example involved his brother. When Johann left a card for Beethoven that read, “Johann van Beethoven, Landed proprietor,” Beethoven quickly responded with his own: “Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain proprietor.” Though brief glimpses of this rough humor can be found as early as the Second Symphony, Beethoven had not yet allowed it an outlet in his music until the composition of the A major Symphony.

Besides allowing his “unbuttoned” humor a musical outlet, Beethoven composed the Seventh Symphony during a particularly happy time for the composer. As was his habit, the composer left Vienna during the summer months for the countryside, where he sketched out his compositions that would later be put into their final form once he returned to Vienna for the winter. In the summer of 1811, he ventured farther from the Austrian capital than usual, to Teplitz, roughly fifty miles from Prague. There, he enjoyed a vibrant confluence of intellectuals and musicians, among them the Sebald family; the actor Ludwig Lowe; Johann Fichte, a founding figure of German idealism; and the poet Christoph Tiedge. Afternoons and evenings were spent with great fellowship, and Beethoven, against his usual manner, even obliged to extemporize at the piano.

Once completed, the Seventh Symphony was premiered on December 8, 1813 at a concert in Vienna given to benefit the soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau, where Austrian and Bavarian troops attempted to cut off Napoleon’s retreat from Leipzig. The program also included Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” in honor of the British victory over Napeleon at Vittoria. Among the orchestra were some of the most prominent musicians of the day—Schuppanzigh, Romberg, Spohr, Dagonetti, Meyerbeer, Hummel, and Salieri. Beethoven himself conducted the concert, though probably more to the performance’s detriment than advantage due to the advanced stage of his deafness by this time. Yet, the Symphony No. 7 was received with great praise; the Allegretto even was encored. A repeat performance on the 12th of the same month met with equal success. The work, however, did not fare as well in North Germany. When it was premiered in Leipzig, Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara Wieck, criticized the symphony, remarking that it could have only been composed in a “drunken state.” Regardless, the Seventh now is staple of the symphonic repertoire, and, along with the Eroica and the Fifth, one of the most oft-performed of Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven himself was particularly fond of the work, and twice referred to it as one of his best works.  (To continue reading, please click here)

The Seventh Symphony opens with a lengthy Poco sostenuto introduction, more expansive than any that have appeared in Beethoven’s symphonic works. Incidentally, it is the last of Beethoven’s symphonies to feature a formal introduction—the Eighth dispenses with it altogether, and the Ninth possesses its own curious prologue. Indeed, the introduction of the Seventh is the culmination of what began in the First. In that seminal work, the introduction remained fixed in the Classical tradition of mere preparation of the ensuing first theme. With the Second Symphony, it was expanded in length, but still fell short of taking on a more substantial quality. In the Fourth Symphony, Beethoven succeeded in giving the introduction a formal weight equal to other divisions of the sonata form. But, that of the Seventh, surpasses even it. Here, it takes on an even greater role, and, while presaging the impending Vivace, asserts its own independence as a preparatory movement, instead of a cursory introduction prefixed to the main body of a sonata form.

The theme of the introduction glides effortlessly downward, first in the oboe, followed by the clarinet and horns in turn, from staccato chords elicited from the entire orchestra that punctuate the beginning of each statement. In an even more daring move than the modulation that defined the opening measures of the First Symphony and which many critics of at that time bristled at, Beethoven, by the eight measure, modulates from the tonic key of A major into the distant key of F, a tonal move that has lasting consequences across the entire symphony. Fragments of the theme are heard amid colossal, ascending scales, and the music ventures into the equally remote key of C major. At this point, a new melody, marked dolce, is introduced by the oboe. With the arrival of this theme, the half-note theme heard at the outset recedes into the background. The dolce melody now dominates the remaining portion of the introduction. From C major, the music settles again into F, and thus three of the important tonal centers of the symphony have been established. However, without warning, Beethoven interrupts the charming discourse of the dolce tune, and abruptly reaffirms the tonic key of A major by means of a unison E from the entire orchestra. Now begins the transition into the Vivace, during which an E is sounded sixty-one times, passed back and forth between the flute and oboe and the violins.

In 6/8 meter, the Vivace, as does the entire symphony, abounds with an irrepressible rhythmic vitality. It was this liveliness that led Wagner to call the Symphony “the Apotheosis of the Dance; the Dance in its highest condition; the happiest realization of the movements of the body in an ideal form.” After four measures that establish the rhythmic motif that permeates the entire movement, the principal theme is given by the flute, echoed and then joined by the strings. At its conclusion, the theme comes to the same pause that so eloquently and wonderfully marked the ends of the opening themes of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and afterwards is taken up again by the entire orchestra. The second theme arrives quickly, certainly without warning, and quite unexpectedly by means of an E-flat major chord taken as an enharmonic springboard into the key of E major.

After the close of the exposition in the key of the dominant, the development gets underway in C major with a mysterious passage of contrary scales, given in hushed tones from the strings and woodwinds. The development is carried to great length, and the movement’s characteristic rhythmic motif is hardly absent from a single measure. The recapitulation begins with the principal theme given fortissimo by the first violins. Like the analogous sections of the composer’s previous two symphonies, it is a remarkable example of the way in which Beethoven could reimagine the treatment and presentation of his material while maintaining the general outline laid out by the exposition. The coda, too, continues the obsession with the basic rhythmic motif right up to the final measures, with the only exception being a strikingly original passage that has become so characteristic of Beethoven. Drawing on a chromatic idea that was initially presented with the second theme, the lower strings move eerily about amidst a dominant pedal spread out through five octaves and a ghostly transformation of the principal theme. It was for this passage that Carl Maria von Weber (at least accordingly Schindler) supposedly declared Beethoven “ripe for the madhouse.”

In place of an Andante or Adagio, Beethoven has provided an Allegretto as a second movement. However, it seems Beethoven, after the symphony had been published, was worried of the movement being taken too fast to the point that he wished the tempo marking changed to Andante quasi Allegretto. Nevertheless, the Allegretto adopts the key of A minor and could not be more different in character than the preceding Vivace. Its theme, which begins in the strings and is one of Beethoven’s most recognizable melodies, has all the severity of a funeral march, proceeding with a solemn dactyl rhythm. The first sketches of this theme date from 1806 and was originally intended for the second movement of the third Rasumovsky Quartet (in C major, op. 59, no. 3). Carefully hidden within this theme is a countermelody that appears on its repetition, a hauntingly beautiful tune given to the violas and cellos. With each repetition the theme and its countermelody builds in fervor as more and more instruments are added—first the violins, then the oboes and bassoons, and finally the remainder of the woodwinds and all the brass.

From a powerful fortissimo, the music wanes until a new dolce melody, in A major, bursts upon the scene like a sudden, warming ray of sunlight. Accompanying the melody is a marvelous stream of triplets in the first violin, and the effect is very similar to the C major oboe theme that breaks the gloomy proceedings of the Marche funebre of the Eroica. However, beneath all of this, the cellos and basses maintain the ominous dactyl rhythm of the first theme. Towards the conclusion of this episode, the music modulates into C major, and thus facilitates the first reprise of the A minor theme. First appearing in an altered form in the woodwinds, it is soon taken up in a rigorous fugato. The conclusion of the fugato leads into a return of the A major episode. Yet, it is quickly abandoned, and the music succumbs once more to the minor mode for a final statement of the first theme.

The Scherzo, though not so named, provides yet another example of the remarkable contrasts Beethoven could achieve within a single work. In F major and marked Presto, it begins with a jocose theme that curiously recalls that of the corresponding movement of the First Symphony. It is also a wonderful study in modulation. By the theme’s conclusion, Beethoven modulates to close in A major; yet, the repeat, without warning, abruptly begins the theme again in the key of F. Furthermore, in the following section, by utilizing the falling semitones of the theme, he traverses the keys of D, C, and B-flat major in quick succession. The Trio section, marked Assai meno presto, is a charming contrast to the Scherzo. Adopting the key of D major, the theme is confined almost entirely to the winds, beneath a dominant pedal in the violins, until it is taken up by the entire orchestra at its conclusion. In the latter part of the Trio, the second horn is given a prominent role—first, echoing the semitone figure of the theme, then changing it into a point of rhythmic tension by adopting a duple meter against the prevailing 3-4 time signature. Like in the Fourth Symphony, both the Scherzo and Trio are reprised twice, with the Trio’s theme making a brief reappearance in the coda that concludes the movement.

Though the opening theme of the Allegretto, or even of the Vivace, may be among the most recognizable parts of the Seventh, it is the Allegro con brio Finale that is its crowning achievement. In essence, it is the fulfillment of everything that the finale of the Second Symphony had promised years before, and is the musical embodiment of Beethoven’s “unbuttoned” manner. It begins with two brusque figures, themselves one of Beethoven’s rudest practical jokes. The first squarely establishes the key of E, yet the second, quite boorishly, interjects the flattened seventh. Against a dominant pedal spread through five octaves, the principal theme takes flight in the third measure, carried on by an incessant rhythmic energy provided by the accentuated weak beats of the measures. Two more melodic ideas, both descending figures (the first, in eighth notes; the second, in quarters) spawn out this initial theme before the second theme proper arrives in the key of C sharp minor—a sprightly tune in dotted rhythm and accompanied by comical octaves in the bassoon. Throughout, the Finale abounds with the capriciousness of which Beethoven was so capable, and there are more than plenty of examples of sudden, abrupt transitions. A striking example occurs at the beginning of the development where the violins and the basses pass between them upward leaping sixths as if laughing at one another. The extensive coda, longer than any yet encountered in Beethoven’s symphonies, takes on a somewhat nobler manner, eventually culminating in a truly marvelous passage in which the cellos and basses gradually step down, a semitone at a time, until resting on the dominant. From thence the orchestra builds into a mighty fff, a dynamic rarely found in Beethoven’s music, just before the final measures.