Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92

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       This work is simply a gem, and while certainly well known, deserves to be even better appreciated by concert audiences. Beethoven, himself, famously said that it was one of his best works. And, unlike so many works of genius that initially were pearls cast before swine, everybody knew on the spot that this work was great. It is commonplace, of course, for scholars to think of Beethoven’s musical life in three great periods—the last being the time of compositions that “challenge” comprehension and appreciation. The fecund middle period, roughly the first decade of the nineteenth century is the time of dozens of the magnificent works that came to define the composer and establish his eternal reputation, and his seventh symphony stands pretty much near the end of that time.

       Written mostly during 1811 and finished by early 1812, it is a without doubt a complete reflection of the happy times and optimistic personal attitude of the composer at that time in his life—both professionally and personally. We are all familiar with the struggles and depressive moments in his emotionally up and down life, but times were good about then. The beloved “Pastoral” symphony was finished in 1808, and he then busied himself with important works, among them, the “Emperor” piano concerto and the music for Egmont. Sketches for both the seventh and the eighth symphonies were all part of his activity during this time.

       He had already suffered health problems by early 1811, and traveled to the spa in the Bohemian town of Teplice, where work on the symphonies went on during that summer. Both symphonies were finished the next year, and together they more or less demark the end of an era. From that time on, until the end of his life in 1827, Beethoven the man, and his musical works underwent significant changes. His health underwent further deterioration, with debilitating family squabbles and failures in personal relationships all contributing to the change. While there were great works still to be written, the flow of inspiration was lessened, his social isolation increased, and the style of his composition took on a new, abstract quality.

        So, the uplifting joy and vigor of Symphony No. 7 is a turning point. Beethoven, himself, conducted the première—contemporary accounts entertainingly describe his energetic and exaggerated gesticulations on the podium. And in the orchestra were some of the luminaries of the musical scene. It must have been an inspiring concert, indeed. The audience is on record for its enthusiastic response to this vivacious composition. No wonder, for there are few works by Beethoven so spurred by rhythmic inspiration and drive. Wagner has been endlessly excoriated for the banal comment that the work is “an apotheosis of the dance.” While it may have been a ham-fisted comment—neither Beethoven, nor few others have alluded to any dances in the work--but there is more than a grain of truth in the comment.

        After a few dynamic chords the first movement opens with a long, slow introduction that is a perfect example of Beethoven’s skill at artfully creating an atmosphere of expectation out of nothing much more than a few scales, sustained chords, and some melodic fragments. As it ends it seems to fragment into just a few repeated notes peeking out from octave to octave. And then there coyly appears a murmur of the simple rhythmic figure around which the first movement, proper, is built. A multiplicity of themes inhabit this driving, happy affair—all built in typical Beethoven fashion out of that little dotted rhythm.

        The second movement is a special one—even for Beethoven. The first audience immediately recognized its inherent appeal, and forced its encore, right then. It consists of a “theme” that undergoes a series of variations—or, rather more strictly, is repeated with new and attractive elements added with each repetition, while retaining all that which was added. And it’s not really a theme in the melodic sense at all, rather just a basic chord progression in a constantly repeated simple rhythm. Here again, is ample evidence of Beethoven’s consummate skill at conjuring up magic out of the simplest of elements. There is a new tune in the middle, in the major mode—still with the simple rhythm of the beginning. The material of the opening returns, with some development added, and it all ends as it began.

        A driving and dynamic scherzo can be expected next, and the composer certainly delivers one, quite a long one, at that, in an extended form that Beethoven liked. This movement possesses all of the impetus and rhythmic verve of the first movement, and again reaffirms the composer’s optimism. The last movement, if it is possible, trumps everything so far. It jumps right in with an intensity and jubilant ferocity rare even in Beethoven. Thumping, swinging, hammering—it relentlessly drives ahead, spurred by the timpani and the horns. If ever there was one movement from Beethoven’s nine symphonies that reminds us of his epochal innovation of rhythm as a fundamental element in musical composition, this is it. It doesn’t take long, dashing to a headlong conclusion that is nothing less than breathtaking.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan