LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
SYMPHONY No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1813
Many interpretations have been offered of what Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “means,” from Adolf Marx’s idiotic “tale of a Moorish knight” to Wagner’s famous “apotheosis of the dance,” but it’s worth remembering that the Symphony was first heard in a program of patriotic music dedicated to the Austrian fallen of the Battle of Hanau. Beethoven introduced the work by saying “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”
However, it’s a good idea to read on after Wagner’s “apotheosis” utterance, as he goes on to hit the nail squarely on the head: “[In this piece,] Melody and Harmony unite around the sturdy bones of Rhythm.” He’s right. Indeed, obsessive rhythm and repetition are so important in the work that it has even been cited as an ancestor of Ravel’s Bolero.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction that wanders through a couple of unlikely keys before settling on, of all things, F. Beethoven hacks his way back to the home key of A by simply repeating the dominant note E an alarming 61 times. The main section is in standard sonata form in a bouncy 6/8 meter, ending in a coda whose most obvious feature is the same measure repeated ten times over an Also Sprach Zarathustra-style pedal note on (of course) E.
The famous main melody of the Allegretto repeats the same simple rhythmic pattern over twenty times. Of the first 20 notes of the melody, 16 are the same note (E, of course). Yet, despite an underlying structure that Carl Orff would have been proud of, it remains one of Beethoven’s most sublime inventions. The first audience was so impressed that the performance had to be halted for the movement to be repeated.
The third movement, a lively Scherzo, is in the unlikely key of F, with a Trio in the slightly more likely key of D, but the Trio quotes an Austrian hymn, Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis (Holy Mary, pray for us) – the only sign in the whole work of a connection to the charitable cause supported by the premiere. The movement somehow balances this gesture at piety with a rhythmic drive that Thomas Beecham called “a bunch of yaks jumping around.”
Another quotation haunts the finale. The main theme is a direct quote from Beethoven’s own setting of the Irish folksong Save me from the grave and wise. Composers only quote songs to point the listener to the words; listeners should draw their own conclusion. However, it was what Donald Tovey called this movement’s “Bacchic fury” that led to Wagner’s “apotheosis” declaration.
Beethoven declared the Seventh Symphony to be one of his best works on the night of the premiere. Carl Maria von Weber heard it and declared Beethoven to be “ripe for the madhouse.” But close listening reveals that these statements are not contradictory; surely, the line between madness and genius sometimes simply disappears, and we may be listening to an example here.
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