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Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

The Seventh Symphony comes about four years after the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and is roughly contemporaneous with the Eighth. Each of the movements  is built over by a pervasive rhythmic ostinato pattern, such that the symphony taken as a whole becomes an essay in musical propulsion. Today we tend to sneer at Wagner’s summary of the work as the “apotheosis of the dance,” but to me there seems an underlying, if old-fashioned, aptness to the remark.


The movement structures are traditional sonata or sonata-imbued forms, free-wheeling and extended in the style of Beethoven’s middle period with heroic gestures, long developments and codas, and all the rest. I find the orchestration, with its strong emphasis on soo woodwind, notably flute and oboe, to be exceptionally rich in color.

The long slow introduction to the first movement is unusual for Beethoven, probably a nod backward to the style of Haydn. The half-note melody at the beginning interacts with the rising scales in sixteenth notes; a gracious subject with ornamental turn is heard in the woodwind, and these two gambits are repeated as the passage moves harmonically back toward the tonic. The repeated sixteenth notes, first heard as a kind of countersubject, achieve prominence; Beethoven slips in a hint of the rhythm that dominates the Vivace, thereby setting up a transition to the main portion of the movement. The dotted-rhythm ostinato begins gallantly, but as the sonata gains momentum it becomes hammering and valkyresque to such an extent that the empty bars at the end of the exposition and the beginning of the development draw one up quite short.  As in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, the recapitulation expands a fermata first heard in the exposition by adding a brief oboe cadenza.

The great Allegretto, with its sea of slow-moving bows and its languid woodwind-dominated trios was easily the most popular symphonic movement in the nineteenth-century repertoire, offered by tea-garden bands and in promenade concerts and often substituted for less successful movements in other symphonies. What Berlioz called a “profound sigh” begins the movement, then a twenty-four-bar theme that dwells largely on reiterated Es is played successively by the various sections of the orchestra over seductive counterpoints. Out of the first trio grows a glorious fugue built on the main theme; after the second, the movement dissolves into the sigh with which it commenced.

In the scherzo, of bright spirit, you should remark the extra bars thrown in from time to time to catch you off guard. The trios begins as though suspended beneath the high note in the violins, then grow majestic with the introduction of trumpets and timpani. The scherzo passages plow toward this turning point with such conviction that, at the last recapitulation, it seems impossible to stop the cycle: but here five summary chords simply shear it off. For the finale Beethoven summons up a theme charged with sixteenth-note passagework, introduced by an abrupt tattoo. A second theme introduces some possibilities for variety by dotted figurations whose halting character daunts, a little, the driving forward motion. But the urgency of the sixteenths cannot be subdued for long, and they always end up in control.

It is the too-common practice now-a-days to omit some of the repeats Beethoven calls for in three of the four movements. Without them, however, you miss some splendid details, and you lose in particular the full impact of the double scherzo and trio. Insist on the repeat, if you can, for they give the Seventh Symphony its special measure of heroism.

 

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