Symphony No. 7
With his 7th Symphony in A Major Opus 92, as with last week’s E minor Sonata for Piano Opus 90, Beethoven continues to move into his late style period. For many, the 7th is their favorite Beethoven symphony. It would be mine too if it weren’t for the 9th and its powerful message. Richard Wagner thought the 7th evoked feelings of the dance, thus a nickname that has stuck. For me it’s once again the juxtaposition of the tragic seriousness of life and its joy. Isn’t that one of the wonders of great art – that it is so personal on different levels? That’s such a simplistic thing to say maybe, but true.It begins with a fairly simple quiet statement that develops through the piling up of instrumental layers to a very powerful reiteration of the opening theme. Some E octaves lead to an ostinato rhythm that is the key idea of the first movement. Perhaps this is where Wagner first got his notion of the dance. The movement drives to the end where it cadences on an A major chord. Suddenly the second movement begins in A minor! An A minor chord with a E in the bass lends a suspended, haunting and foreboding air. A funeral march ensues with variations. An incredible counter theme appears over the march motive, one of the most powerful themes in music, I think. It develops through the addition of instruments, rhythmic acceleration, and emotional density. All of a sudden, A Major! Sunshine and tranquility! Remarkable. Then the dirge returns more complicated, even with a fugato. The sun reappears in major then the minor again. Even in the major key, listen for the rhythm of the dirge in the basses. It ends with the same chord it began with, an A minor in the 2nd inversion. What a powerful movement! Next a brilliant F Major very fast scherzo. Its trio section is in D Major, a third relation from F Major, a scheme Schubert used often. Then the fiery finale. (*see the Oscar Levant anecdote below.)
The movement begins with a chord on E, a chord over an E, and then a A chord. To my ear, this gives the whole symphony a feeling of moving from A to E to F to E to A.
*There is a wonderful story I remember hearing where the great pianist and comedian, yes, comedian, Oscar Levant related a story germane to this piece. He said he was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike when he was pulled over by a state policeman. The policeman asked if he realized how fast he was going. Levant replied no and the policeman told him he was going at least 20 miles an hour over the speed limit. He asked what possible explanation he could have. Levant said, “Have you ever tried not to speed when listening to the last movement of Beethoven’s seventh Symphony?” Apocryphally the policeman let him off.
I’ve included two different recordings below. The Toscanini is legendary.
Between Op.19 and opus 92 lies – guess what? Op. 91. Wellington’s Victory, a piece by Beethoven commemorating the defeat of Napoleon at a particular battle. You will hear all sorts of drum rolls, trumpet fanfares, and familiar tunes that will make you smile. It’s kind of enjoyable listening. It’s certainly nothing profound. It’s a short piece that’s worth listening to a couple of times. It’s not regarded as one of Beethoven’s better pieces however. So, whenever anyone mentions it, you should wrinkle your nose and haughtily harrumph. Here it is: