Tuesday, April 26, 2011



About The Piece
Beethoven's Symphony #7

Composed: 1811-1812
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 1, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

“It is a composition in which the author has indulged in a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts. Altogether, it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma – we almost said a hoax.”

So wrote a critic in London’s influential Harmonicon in July of 1825, a full 13 years after Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was introduced in Vienna. While that concert, which also featured the first performance of the bellicose Wellington’s Victory, was enthusiastically received by the public – the Wiener Zeitung reported that “...the applause rose to the point of ecstasy” – the A-major Symphony was savagely assailed by virtually all of the critics, including Carl Maria von Weber, who dismissed it as the work of a madman. Ironically enough, this giddy, impetuous swirl of motion, which Wagner in a famous pronouncement called the “Apotheosis of the Dance,” was written during one of the darkest and most difficult periods in the composer’s life.

By the summer of 1812, when the work was taking its final form, the French army had invaded Russia, thus launching the most savage phase of the Napoleonic Wars. Amid the universal turmoil, Beethoven was suffering innumerable shocks within his own silent hell. This was the period of those ardent, pathetically hopeful letters to “The Immortal Beloved,” the great unrequited love of his life. It was also a time when the illness which had destroyed his hearing began manifesting itself through other disturbing symptoms: the constant, excruciating intestinal pain, and the first signs of the serious liver disorder that would eventually kill him.

Except in its heart-rending second movement, the ebullient, life-affirming A-major Symphony shows no signs of either the social chaos or the private agony that surrounded its composition. Following the lengthiest of Beethoven’s symphonic introductions – in which a pair of simple, unadorned musical ideas are developed at majestic length – the first movement proper, marked Vivace, is announced by some chirping woodwinds who expand a bare but insistent rhythmic figure into light and graceful dance. While the movement reminded Hector Berlioz of a peasant round, the music is far too complex and refined for such a description – unless the peasants happened to be members of the Kirov corps de ballet. After a development section in which the irresistible power of the dance figure nearly threatens to destroy the formal bonds which contain it, an even more uninhibited coda, over a droning five-note figure that rumbles out of the depths of the orchestra, brings the movement to its exultant close.

The essentially rhythmic organization of the Symphony is evident even in the melancholy second movement, marked Allegretto. After a somber woodwind chord, the lower strings present the hushed, march-like pulse from which the entire movement will grow. Fugal countermelodies in the violas and cellos are woven around the principal subject, which eventually gives way to a second, flowing melody in the clarinets and bassoons. A mysterious passage rises to a tremendous climax, after which fragments of the principal theme rustle like leaves in the various sections of the orchestra.

The slapdash Scherzo is among the most impetuous and light-hearted symphonic movements that Beethoven ever wrote. The Presto section is buoyant, witty, and full of colorful, explosive contrasts. The Trio is built on an alternately tender and noble melody for the clarinets, bassoons, and horns, which ends with a sleepy string figure bearing a striking resemblance to the tune of “Good Night, Ladies.” Both sections of the movement are repeated with minor variations, although when the Trio attempts to return for a third and final time, it is rudely cut off by five impatient staccato chords.

The whirlwind Finale, marked Allegro con brio, is a frenetic, uninhibited dance in which one furious climax follows another in a welter of moiling, though perfectly controlled and unfailingly good-natured, commotion.


Notes on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony

by Christopher H. Gibbs

June 11, 2006 - By the mid 1810s Beethoven was recognized far and wide as the preeminent living composer. That did not mean, however, that he was the most popular, published, or often performed. Rossini was emerging as a new force in the musical world, and his prominence extended far beyond the opera house; arrangements for every conceivable combination of instruments took his music into home, café, and concert hall. Beethoven's imposing historical stature can obscure our appreciation of how in his own time he sought to juggle fame, popularity, and artistic innovations.

Greatness and Popularity
Many of what are today considered Beethoven's most highly esteemed compositions, especially ones from late in his career, were initially received with a complex mixture of admiration, bewilderment, and resistance. But there were also works that were truly popular or at least aimed to be so. These pieces tend to be much less familiar today than when they were the favorites of his contemporaries: Wellington's Victory, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, the Septet, and his best-loved song, "Adelaide." Occasionally, Beethoven wrote something that was immediately recognized as both artistically great and hugely popular. An example is the second movement of his Seventh Symphony, a piece that was often performed separately from the complete Symphony and that may have been Beethoven's most popular orchestral composition. It also exerted extraordinary influence on later composers, as the slow movements of Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony and E-flat Piano Trio, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, and other works attest.

After its premiere, the Seventh Symphony was repeated three times in the following 10weeks; at one of the performances the "applause rose to the point of ecstasy," according to a newspaper account. The Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported that "the new symphony (A major) was received with so much applause, again. The reception was as animated as at the first time; the Andante [sic] (A minor), the crown of modern instrumental music, as at the first performance, had to be repeated." The Symphony's appeal is not hard to understand. In scope and intensity, it is fully Beethovenian, and yet it does not place quite as many demands on the listener as does the "Eroica." The ambition of the first movement, beauty of the second, the breathlessness of the scherzo, and relentless energy of the finale did not fail to impress audiences. Beethoven himself called it "one of the happiest products of my poor talents."

Celebrating Victory
Beethoven wrote the Symphony in 1811-12, completing it in April. It was premiered at one of his most successful concerts, given on December 8, 1813, to benefit soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau a few months earlier. Paired with the Seventh was the first performance of Wellington's Victory, also known as the "Battle Symphony." The enjoyment of the event was hardly surprising given what most members of the Viennese audience had been through during the preceding decade. Napoleon's occupations of Vienna in 1805 and 1809 had proven traumatic, but the tide had turned with the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In June, the Duke of Wellington was triumphant against Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, and within the year the Congress of Vienna was convened to reapportion Europe in the aftermath of France's defeat. After so much conflict and misery, impending victory could be honored and celebrated.

Later writers characterized the Seventh Symphony in various ways, but it is striking how many of the descriptions touch on its frenzy, approaching a bacchanal at times, and on its elements of dance. Richard Wagner's poetic account is well known: "All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone."

As biographer Maynard Solomon has keenly observed, the descriptions of Wagner and others seem to have a common theme: "The apparently diverse free-associational images of these critics—of masses of people, of powerful rhythmic energy discharged in action or in dance, of celebrations, weddings, and revelry—may well be variations on a single image: the carnival or festival, which from time immemorial has temporarily lifted the burden of perpetual subjugation to the prevailing social and natural order by periodically suspending all customary privileges, norms, and imperatives." Wellington's Victory gave a realistic imitation of battle between the English (represented by the song "Rule Britannia") and the French ("Marlborough s’en va-t’en guerre") and ends victoriously with variations on "God Save the King"—it is an effective but hardly subtle work. The Seventh apparently tapped into similar celebratory emotions vivid at the moment, but on a much deeper level that has allowed the Symphony to retain its stature ever since.

A Closer Look
The Symphony's dance elements, vitality, and sense of celebration are conveyed principally through rhythm. It is not the melodies that are so striking and memorable as the general sense of forward movement. (At times there is no melody at all, but simply the repetition of a single pitch.) The first movement (Poco sostenuto) opens with the longest of Beethoven's introductions—indeed the longest yet in the history of the symphony, that leads (by way of repeating just one note) into the main body of the movement (Vivace). The famous A-minor Allegretto is framed by the same unstable chord to open and close the movement. The form is ABABA with the opening section using a theme that is once again more distinctive for its rhythmic profile than for its melody. The movement builds in intensity and includes a fugue near the end.

The Presto scherzo brings out the dance aspect even more. As in some of his other instrumental works, Beethoven includes two trio sections. The Allegro con brio finale offers a tour-de-force of energy and excitement. As throughout the Symphony, part of the distinctive sound comes from Beethoven's use of the horns. The work is in A-major, which gives a brightness not found in the composer's earlier symphonies.


Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was completed in 1812 and conducted its premier on December 8, 1813 in the University of Vienna. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is widely viewed as a symphony of dance, where as, Wagner described it as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Its highly enjoyable, haunting 2nd movement was often most encored.