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Notes on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony

By the mid 1810s Beethoven was recognized far and wide as the preeminent living composer. That did not mean, however, that he was the most popular, published, or often performed. Rossini was emerging as a new force in the musical world, and his prominence extended far beyond the opera house; arrangements for every conceivable combination of instruments took his music into home, café, and concert hall. Beethoven's imposing historical stature can obscure our appreciation of how in his own time he sought to juggle fame, popularity, and artistic innovations.

Greatness and Popularity

Many of what are today considered Beethoven's most highly esteemed compositions, especially ones from late in his career, were initially received with a complex mixture of admiration, bewilderment, and resistance. But there were also works that were truly popular or at least aimed to be so. These pieces tend to be much less familiar today than when they were the favorites of his contemporaries: Wellington's Victory, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, the Septet, and his best-loved song, "Adelaide." Occasionally, Beethoven wrote something that was immediately recognized as both artistically great and hugely popular. An example is the second movement of his Seventh Symphony, a piece that was often performed separately from the complete Symphony and that may have been Beethoven's most popular orchestral composition. It also exerted extraordinary influence on later composers, as the slow movements of Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony and E-flat Piano Trio, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, and other works attest.

After its premiere, the Seventh Symphony was repeated three times in the following 10 weeks; at one of the performances the "applause rose to the point of ecstasy," according to a newspaper account. The Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported that "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] (A minor), the crown of modern instrumental music, as at the first performance, had to be repeated." The Symphony's appeal is not hard to understand. In scope and intensity, it is fully Beethovenian, and yet it does not place quite as many demands on the listener as does the "Eroica." The ambition of the first movement, beauty of the second, the breathlessness of the scherzo, and relentless energy of the finale did not fail to impress audiences. Beethoven himself called it "one of the happiest products of my poor talents."

Celebrating Victory

Beethoven wrote the Symphony in 1811-12, completing it in April. It was premiered at one of his most successful concerts, given on December 8, 1813, to benefit soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau a few months earlier. Paired with the Seventh was the first performance of Wellington's Victory, also known as the "Battle Symphony." The enjoyment of the event was hardly surprising given what most members of the Viennese audience had been through during the preceding decade. Napoleon's occupations of Vienna in 1805 and 1809 had proven traumatic, but the tide had turned with the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In June, the Duke of Wellington was triumphant against Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, and within the year the Congress of Vienna was convened to reapportion Europe in the aftermath of France's defeat. After so much conflict and misery, impending victory could be honored and celebrated.

Later writers characterized the Seventh Symphony in various ways, but it is striking how many of the descriptions touch on its frenzy, approaching a bacchanal at times, and on its elements of dance. Richard Wagner's poetic account is well known: "All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone."

As biographer Maynard Solomon has keenly observed, the descriptions of Wagner and others seem to have a common theme: "The apparently diverse free-associational images of these critics—of masses of people, of powerful rhythmic energy discharged in action or in dance, of celebrations, weddings, and revelry—may well be variations on a single image: the carnival or festival, which from time immemorial has temporarily lifted the burden of perpetual subjugation to the prevailing social and natural order by periodically suspending all customary privileges, norms, and imperatives." Wellington's Victory gave a realistic imitation of battle between the English (represented by the song "Rule Britannia") and the French ("Marlborough s’en va-t’en guerre") and ends victoriously with variations on "God Save the King"—it is an effective but hardly subtle work. The Seventh apparently tapped into similar celebratory emotions vivid at the moment, but on a much deeper level that has allowed the Symphony to retain its stature ever since.

A Closer Look

The Symphony's dance elements, vitality, and sense of celebration are conveyed principally through rhythm. It is not the melodies that are so striking and memorable as the general sense of forward movement. (At times there is no melody at all, but simply the repetition of a single pitch.) The first movement (Poco sostenuto) opens with the longest of Beethoven's introductions—indeed the longest yet in the history of the symphony, that leads (by way of repeating just one note) into the main body of the movement (Vivace). The famous A-minor Allegretto is framed by the same unstable chord to open and close the movement. The form is ABABA with the opening section using a theme that is once again more distinctive for its rhythmic profile than for its melody. The movement builds in intensity and includes a fugue near the end.

The Presto scherzo brings out the dance aspect even more. As in some of his other instrumental works, Beethoven includes two trio sections. The Allegro con brio finale offers a tour-de-force of energy and excitement. As throughout the Symphony, part of the distinctive sound comes from Beethoven's use of the horns. The work is in A-major, which gives a brightness not found in the composer's earlier symphonies.

Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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Christopher H. Gibbs