performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt
(cover image by Dorian Mongel)
Here it is. Music post no. 700. No. 600 was Mahler 9, 500 was Schoenberg’s violin concerto, 400 was Mahler’s Das Lied, 300 was Shostakovich’s violin concerto in Am.
And here’s where it gets intimidating to talk about Beethoven again. The seventh symphony is one of Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies, which (with the exception of the first) seem to get much more attention (relatively speaking) than the second, fourth, or eighth (the sixth has done very well for itself, certainly). How does one describe the overwhelming power, the grandeur, the emotional, even spiritual, experience of such a moving work as the seventh symphony? Well, I’ll try.
First, I’ll say that it is distinctly different from, say, the fifth or the ninth (which we have obviously yet to discuss). The fifth, with its beginning in C minor and ad astra per aspera trajectory, is a work of fire and triumph, a piece that (well, at least the first movement of which) everyone is familiar with. It has its own special flavor of intensity.
I shan’t talk in any detail about the ninth, but for its grandeur, scope, ambition and awe-inspiring nature, no symphony had up to that point come anywhere close to what Beethoven accomplished, and it would indeed be decades before another one would even attempt.
The seventh, it seems stupidly obvious to say, is somewhere between these two, seeing as it literally is. It hasn’t the fire-and-brimstone qualities of the fifth, nor the epic grandness of the ninth, but occupies this phenomenal sweet spot of a lightness and liveliness akin to the first two symphonies, with the maturity and depth of the by-now-mature composer. It is undeniably one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
The piece was composed between 1811 and 1812, while Beethoven was vacationing (perhaps just convalescing) in Teplice, now in the Czech Republic. The seventh symphony is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, to whom Beethoven dedicated also the op. 23 and 24 violin sonatas, his op. 29 string quintet, and perhaps more.
The work was premiered on December 8, 1813 in Vienna, under the composer’s baton, at a charity concert for wounded soldiers. Wikipedia tells us, fascinatingly, that such renowned musicians as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Louis Spohr, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Antonio Salieri and others were part of the orchestra for this performance. What a remarkable collection of humans this concert must have been.
This December concert was held a full five years (well, not quite, but almost to the day) after the benefit concert on December 22, 1808 where Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies were premiered. What took place in the interim? The op. 70 piano trios, the fifth piano concerto, tenth string quartet, the op. 78, 79 and 81 piano sonatas, Egmont, and what seems to be finishing up some stuff from earlier, like Fidelio, perhaps.
Anywho, the seventh symphony is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time (in Harnoncourt’s reading) of a little over 40 minutes:
- Poco sostenuto – Vivace (A major)
- Allegretto (A minor)
- Presto – Assai meno presto (trio) (F major, Trio in D major)
- Allegro con brio (A major)
The first movement begins with an introduction of splendor and elegance. It’s broad and stately, but I personally feel like the growth and tension and suspense built up in this truly sublime, expansive exposition is indicative of what this symphony as a whole accomplishes. There are two subjects in this four-ish minute introduction, each sort of developed, or at least expounded upon, and this gives the first movement the feeling of being grand and expansive, but also compact and succinct.
After this wonderful introduction, we’re finally given what even the most inexperienced of music listeners would be able to identify as the actual beginning of the first movement proper. It’s like we’ve stepped outside of the beautiful, richly decorated but slightly dark manor house into the bright morning sun. The venue hasn’t changed, but the atmosphere has. Entirely.
Of all the instruments who could take the charge in busting open those doors and heralding in the breathtaking, exhilarating first subject of this symphony, you might not expect it would be the flute, but it engages in this rousing dialogue with the strings, who bow to its wishes. Soon, the entire orchestra has roared to life in a triumphant gallop. Words cannot describe how stunning this is. The second subject really feels like the latter part of the same thought. Swords aren’t crossed here. For reference, the introduction is about as long as the exposition and its repeat. It’s the largest section of this movement, by far, but I just can’t describe the sheer joy of this movement.
The allegretto is second; there are some similarities, to me, between the opening movements of the third and seventh symphonies, a majestic kind of boldness. That parallel holds true, sort of, for the second movements. While the Eroica actually gives us a funeral march, the allegretto, in A minor, as kind of a passacaglia or variation movement. Wikipedia says that “The movement is structured in a double variation form.” It is heart-rending in how tragically beautiful it is. Wiki continues:
It begins with the main melody played by the violas and cellos, an ostinato (repeated rhythmic figure, or ground bass, or passacaglia)… This melody is then played by the second violins while the violas and cellos play a second melody, described by George Grove as “a string of beauties hand-in-hand”.
There is a brief, refreshing A major section, but it’s kind of like a quick gulp of air before we go back under. This movement is as solemn and sorrowful as the first was buoyant and sunny. What really gets me, though, as with some other Beethoven, as well as Schubert, is this kind of reservedness, understated resilience rather than gushy, heart-on-sleeve drama. It, and really the whole symphony, is like being intrigued by someone who only slowly lets themselves get to know you, but who you never feel like you don’t know. Does that make sense? The second movement is transcendentally beautiful.
Third is our scherzo, which is actually longer than both the allegretto or the finale. This is due to the movement being expanded out so that the trio is played twice, which I haven’t any qualms with. It’s at turns pastoral, then boisterous, playful, humorous. We get a trio “based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn,” and has the kind of polish and courtliness that the first movement exuded. The movement doesn’t in the least feel like it’s bearing down on the ten-minute mark. It ends in a very exciting manner…
… only to be outdone by the absolutely tantalizing finale, which is also in sonata form, and is almost the same length as the allegretto (seven seconds longer in the finale in Harnoncourt’s recording). It has the searing fire of the fifth symphony or the thunderstorm in the pastoral, but with such a burning optimism. Another quote from the Wikipedia article:
In his book Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies, Sir George Grove wrote, “The force that reigns throughout this movement is literally prodigious, and reminds one of Carlyle’s hero Ram Dass, who has ‘fire enough in his belly to burn up the entire world.'” Donald Tovey, writing in his Essays in Musical Analysis, commented on this movement’s “Bacchic fury” and many other writers have commented on its whirling dance-energy…
It’s like you should be able to smell smoke as this movement plays. It is wild, intense, at times even a bit menacing, but just a whirlwind of shimmering, beautiful genius. This entire symphony just purrs like a well-oiled machine. It’s responsive, agile, grips to the road, but has its soft curves, the finer points of the work, like the allegretto, or the third movement’s trio…
The specific atmosphere in this seventh symphony possesses as much conviction and intensity and perfection as Beethoven would ever pour into a symphony. That’s not to say he peaked here. The eighth is the sister work to this piece, and the ninth has an entirely different goal and landscape and life, but here… there’s a purity, a sort of distilled down intensity, that if you ever wanted to bottle up an eau de Beethoven, you would certainly use at least a few drops from this piece. It is his essence. And it is music that requires no words. It is perfection, especially with Harnoncourt at the helm.
At 700 now, and at this rate, we’ll hit no. 1,000 sometime in early 2020, and I hope all three of my readers are still reading then. Go listen to Harnoncourt and the Beethoven. It is jaw-dropping. Thank you so much for reading.