Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, like his Eroica (No. 3), is associated with Napoleon. Unlike the Eroica, however, which Beethoven originally conceived as a tribute to the French emperor, the Seventh can be heard, among other things, as a celebration of Napoleon’s defeat.
Beethoven’s hearing had been fading since the early 1800s, and by 1813, he was almost completely deaf. To compensate, Beethoven adopted an idiosyncratic conducting style, described by colleague Louis Spohr: “Whenever a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms, previously crossed upon his breast, asunder with great vehemence. At piano he crouched down lower and lower according to the degree of softness he desired. If a crescendo then entered he gradually rose again and at the entrance to the forte he jumped into the air. Sometimes, too, he unconsciously shouted to strengthen the forte … It was evident that the poor deaf master was no longer able to hear the pianos in his music … ”
Beethoven’s deafness apparently had no effect on the audience or critics, who received the Seventh Symphony with great enthusiasm. At its premiere, one newspaper reported, the “applause rose to the point of ecstasy.” Writing about a subsequent performance, a Leipzig critic noted, “the new symphony (A major) was received with so much applause, again. The reception was as animated as at the first time; the Andante [sic – the writer is actually referring to the Allegretto] (A minor), the crown of modern instrumental music, as at the first performance, had to be repeated.”
The introduction to the Seventh Symphony was the longest ever written in the history of the symphony up to that time. At 64 measures, it remains one of the most extensive. The Poco sostenuto’s carefully constructed foundation of anticipatory energy leads gently into the joyful Vivace, which builds into an ebullient shout.
The Allegretto has enjoyed fame separate from the Seventh Symphony as a whole. It quickly became an audience favorite, so much so that 19th century, conductors would often insert it into less popular Beethoven symphonies during concerts.
Beethoven’s preference for scherzos rather than minuets as symphonic third movements expanded the creative and expressive possibilities of the symphony as a whole. A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) as Beethoven uses it defies expectation, often in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The first section, the scherzo itself, brims with mirthful humor; the joke becomes sharper when paired with the brass-heavy “trio,” which Beethoven indicated should be “very much less fast” than the scherzo.
In 1848, Richard Wagner wrote that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was “the apotheosis of the dance; it is dance in her highest aspect, as it were the loftiest deed of bodily motion incorporated in an ideal mould of tone.” The whirling energy of the closing Allegro con brio, for example, suggests a ballet dancer performing a series of dazzling fouettes, whipping one leg around and around with effortless skill. Critics and scholars have likened this movement to a Bacchic revel, and Beethoven himself wrote, “Music is the wine which inspires us to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine to make mankind spiritually drunken … ”
- Composer: born December 16, 1770, Bonn; died March 26, 1827, Vienna
- Work composed: begun in the fall of 1811; completed in April 1812
- World premiere: Beethoven conducted the premiere on December 8, 1813, at the University of Vienna, in a benefit concert for Bavarian soldiers injured in the Napoleonic wars.
- Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
- Estimated duration: 36 minutes
© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz