Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Completed in 1812 and premiered in December 1813, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has certainly remained one of his most popular works. The symphony is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries – a nobleman and patron of the arts. The premiere of the symphony was at a charity concert in order to benefit the soldiers who had been wounded in the battle o Hanau. It has been recorded that Beethoven said this to the audience before the work was performed:
“We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”
Also included in this charity concert was Wellington’s Victory – a triumphant and highly patriotic orchestral work also composed by Beethoven. The orchestra was conducted by the popular conductor of the time, and friend of Beethoven’s – Ignaz Schuppanzigh.
The work was very well received by audiences across Europe, with the second movement Allegretto being a particular highlight. The high energy that runs through the music, as well as the beauty and drama, makes this a stand-out orchestral work. The music of this symphony can be described as vivacious, victorious, powerful, bold and tender – a thrilling mixture of atmospheres and emotions.
Scored in four movements, the Seventh Symphony typically lasts 40 minutes. The four movements are as follows:
I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace (A major)
II. Allegretto (A minor)
III. Presto – Assai meno presto (trio) (F major – D major)
IV. Allegro con brio (A major)
The Seventh is known for its development of rhythms and varying tonal centers, with Beethoven honing in on these particular aspects throughout. The symphony is full of tenacity and life, which makes it stand out in many concert programmes, even today.
I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace
The first movement, after an iconic Beethovian opening burst, is an expanded introduction. Most notable in this opening is Beethoven’s use of long ascending scalic movements, which are passed around the ensemble. Beethoven also applies a series of cascading modulations throughout the introduction where the music passes through A major, C major and F major.
The transition into the vivacious Vivace section is dominated by the shift to lively dance rhythms. Beethoven uses dotted rhythms to further explore the intricate relationship between compound time and complex rhythmic structures.
This movement is in sonata form, and the development section takes us into the sunny key of C major, with extensive musical episodes in F major. The movement, unusually, finishes with a very long coda. There is a famous section of music in the coda, which consists of a two-bar motif repeated ten times, with the bass instruments pedalling an impressive low E. The triumphant horns, high strings complete this movement in the comfortable tonic key of A major.
The famous second movement, which was encored at its premiere in 1813, is in the darker key of A minor. Unlike many slow movements of classical symphonies, this one is still marked ‘Allegretto’, which means ‘a little lively’. So in the context of this symphony, it is the slowest movement, however, in the context of other classical-era symphonies, this is a rather quick slow movement.
This movement has been said to reflect Haydn’s musical impression on Beethoven, due to the heavy reliance of the string section. The advancements in this orchestral writing are following the same mission that Haydn carried out throughout his works.
Structured in a double variation form, the music begins with the main melody played by the violas and cellos, which turns into an ostinato. This very simple crotchet-quaver motif is passed onto the upper strings until the next theme is introduced by the upper string sections.
The shift to A major from A minor is led by the clarinets, who play a calm melody above the slightly uneasy triplets played by the violins below. The intricate string writing in this movement keeps the drive going through the music, and it is clear as to why it has remained such a popular movement of music. Today, orchestras often programme this movement alone to perform in concerts.
III. Presto – Assai meno presto
The third movement, a classic scherzo-trio combo, is based in the dominant key of D major. What is noticeable in this movement is Beethoven’s extensive use of the upper winds, namely the flutes and oboes, who often bring the main melodies out.
The trio is based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn, and unusually, is played twice instead of once. The dramatic timpani hits bring life to the transitional cells of music throughout this movement, and indeed the whole symphony.
IV. Allegro con brio
The Finale movement to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is in sonata form. The sheer force throughout this movement is one, if not the most striking aspect of the music. The dramatic changes in dynamic and the rich orchestration create quite the thrilling Finale!
The whirling dance energy throughout is brought to life by pointed dotted rhythms and swirling semiquaver runs. The music is precise, fiery and full of power. There is a rare marking of the dynamic fff, which, for Beethoven’s time, was rarely seen. The exchanges between the winds and strings are intricate and wonderfully resonant of past themes throughout the whole symphony.
The final movement sweeps along at an irrepressible pace, with the notes flying off the page! This inspired symphony is not only a work loved by the masses, but Beethoven himself regarded this as “one of my best works” – so who are we to disagree?!