Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Allegretto: From Jazz Reverie to Classical Credo

Now, some new takes on an old piece of music.

I love this piece of music. It's the second movement, the Allegretto, from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

This version is from the recent boxed set of Beethoven symphonies played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle.

I'm no music critic, not even a musician, but this music means something special to me. The theme of struggle and progress, of adversity and ultimate triumph.

One year, I kept this piece queued up in my car cassette machine. At eight minutes, its duration coincided with the repeat segment of the morning news that I had no desire to hear again.

So I would drive across the Potomac, inching through rush hour traffic, amused by the contrast between the high and heroic early 19th-century drama of Beethoven and the low banality of my late 20th-century commute. On one occasion, this music was a perfect soundtrack to life at its most exceptional. The Berlin wall had come down. I was flown to Germany to cover the story. When I awoke in a hotel on the Kurfurstendamm, I turned on a television set and saw the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim playing precisely this movement. Outside my hotel the sidewalks were packed with East Berliners they were walking freely in family groups, unafraid, through the suddenly accessible western part of the city.

For eight minutes, life and art were in perfect synch, mutual imitation, mutual validation.

The liner notes that accompanied Simon Rattle's boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies speak of the heroic pathos of the Allegretto and they mention that Franz Schubert was haunted by this movement for his whole working life.

No kidding.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard a radio broadcast of Schubert's variation for four hands played by two pianists called "Duo Crommelynck." This piece was written in 1824, just over a decade after Beethoven's Seventh was composed. And in the fifth variation Schubert did what, exactly ... quoted, paid tribute, ripped off? In any case, he acknowledged the spirit that haunted him: Beethoven's marvelous Allegretto from the Seventh.

This music continues to inspire. It pops up in two lovely new CDs that are very different except for the fact that they share this theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh.

First there's a CD of Allegretto theme and variations by the Jacques Loussier jazz trio.

Jacques Loussier, the pianist, says he, too, has long been haunted by this piece.

Jacques Loussier: This theme is so great and so special and for so many years I've been listening to that theme. And it's more than an attraction, that's the word "haunted" is really there because many, many times during a month, during a week, I whistle this theme, and I remember that theme because this is one of the most beautiful and important themes of Beethoven.

Siegel: What is it about this Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony that seems to be so important to so many people?

Loussier: Personally, I love the way the theme is conducted, with the change of harmonies and with the rhythm, which still all the way through the theme -- it's an attraction.

Siegel: In some of the variations that you play, like the first variation, the variation is simply understood. You're playing with the rhythm, you're altering the rhythm.

Loussier: This theme is beautiful but it is also a little bit sad. And the first variation shows that we could also be happy in playing the theme in a different way, which brings something more agreeable in terms of happiness and in terms of beauty.

Siegel: So you are picking one element of the piece and exaggerating it, magnifying it for that particular variation.

Loussier: Exactly, this is what I try to do. I try I don't know if I succeed, but I try.

Siegel: Did making this album satisfy that sense of being haunted by this theme? Or do you still find yourself thinking about it or whistling it all the time?

Loussier: Yes, because this is a sort of a definite inclination for some beauty musical theme like that. And I think I will keep that feeling forever. I don't feel I will change my rapport to the music of Beethoven, especially this beautiful theme.

Siegel: Jacques Loussier's CD is called Allegretto from Symphony No. 7, Theme and Variations.

The Allegretto plays a more subtle role in a stunningly eclectic CD by the classical pianist Helene Grimaud and the Swedish Radio Orchestra and Choir.

The CD is called Credo, the name of a chorale work by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Grimaud and the orchestra also play a Beethoven chorale work, she plays Beethoven's sonata "The Tempest," and she plays this 1985 composition by John Corigliano. It's called "Fantasia on an Ostinato," and its foundation is the same theme from Beethoven's Seventh.

Helene Grimaud speaks of the trance-inducing powers of this piece, which is haunted by Beethoven but minimalist in style

Grimaud: I think it's a beautiful homage to this aesthetic and particularly to the hypnotic textures that it can achieve.

Siegel: And at the core of it, at the heart of it, is that theme from the Second Movement of Beethoven's symphony.

Grimaud: Exactly, which is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, totally transcendent and exhilarating and poignant all at the same time.

When that theme finally appears, unveiled, it gives you the sense of something that was already there, sort of a memory of the future.

Siegel: Corigliano in this piece that you play, and you as you perform it, make a connection between the music of the early 19th century and the music of the late 20th century. And somehow in this piece they don't seem all that far apart.

Grimaud: That's exactly right. And that's why I really wanted this piece to be on this Credo album. Because for me the album was the way to illustrate the concept of universalism. One of the only hopes that we have is to never lose sight of how we're connected to something bigger than ourselves, and how all disciplines of life have their roots in a global intuition that really shows how time is abolished through that concept. And all of a sudden, it doesn't matter what came before or what is yet to come. What is there, it holds our future.

Siegel: Do you remember when you first heard Beethoven's Seventh, when you first connected with that second movement?

Grimaud: Yes, and as a matter of fact it is a great part of why I wanted to invest myself in music, if I could put it this way. My father bought a complete set of Beethoven symphonies when I was I think 8, 8 ½ years old. And it was really the Seventh that somehow did it. And after that I knew I was going to have to express myself in this way. So it is a very important piece because it is the beginning of my relationship to music, truly.

It is a totally organic piece of music. It's not really fast and it's not really slow. It has a pulsation that to me is very close to the heartbeat. And it grows in that inevitable manner, something that cannot be stopped. It sort of unfolds and sweeps you away with it. And it's a movement that I can never listen to while doing something else. Whatever it is I'm doing, I stop when that piece is playing.

Siegel: Pianist Helene Grimaud. Her soon-to-be released CD is called Credo. It includes her playing John Corigliano's "Fantasia on an Ostinato," a piece based on this theme, the Allegretto, the Second Movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit