Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 7

With his usual Romantic hyperbole, Richard Wagner called Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 the "apotheosis of the dance".  As Wagner's universe-sized ego seldom allowed him to praise a fellow composer, this remark may appear suspect. But Wagner did admire Beethoven's symphonies, even if he did resort to re-orchestrating them in places when he conducted them.  What Wagner is referring to is the emphasis put on rhythm in this symphony, and dancing is all about rhythm.

The rhythm of a piece of music is an integral part of it, but seldom is rhythm emphasized the same way as in this symphony.  But that's not the only unique aspect of this symphony.  Symphony No. 7 was completed in 1812 and premiered in 1813 at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers of the Battle Of Hanau. Beethoven conducted it himself and the work was a resounding success, especially the second movement Allegretto which had to be immediately replayed before the symphony could continue.

The work begins with a long introduction, and the movement proper begins after an ingenious transition where the orchestra passes the pitch of  E natural back and forth in different octaves and note lengths. The dance element is felt immediately when the first theme is heard in the flutes and oboes in a dotted rhythm:

This rhythm shows up throughout the movement in different guises and pitches. In the coda of the movement, Beethoven writes a gradual crescendo as this 2-bar motive appears in the violas, cellos and double basses:

This motive is played eleven times as the rest of the orchestra takes turns chattering snippets of melody over it until the crescendo is finally reached with the restatement of the dotted rhythm.  This is one of the most unique transitions in symphonic history, and some at the time did not understand it. Carl Maria von Weber, a composer that was Beethoven's contemporary, was one who did not understand it at all as he thought that it proved Beethoven was ripe for the mad house.

The second movement was originally marked Andante, but a printing error changed the tempo marking to Allegretto. Beethoven himself asked for a correction back to Andante but to no avail. The movement is not to be taken too fast, and it surely isn't 'light' in character as allegretto intimates. After a sustained chord in the woodwinds and horns, the violas, cellos and double basses begin one of Beethoven's most recognizable melodies:
 The theme is recognizable as much as for the rhythm as the pitches of the notes. This movement is one of Beethoven's most popular compositions. The tune and the rhythm wend their way through the short movement and are heard at various pitches and with interesting counter-melodies playing in the background.

The third movement is a scherzo that scampers and stomps its way until it turns into a calm trio for winds and horns playing over a gentle string accompaniment, until the horns blat out an invitation for the strings to loudly play the theme. The horns do this again, the strings loudly play the tune again, and then all fades into the orchestral scampering again.  But then Beethoven throws the listener another curve; he repeats the trio (not unique really, for he did it before in other compositions) and the scampering theme returns again.  But just when the trio begins for the third time, Beethoven cuts it short with a change of key and an abrupt ending.

The rhythmic vitality doesn't let up in the finale, as the orchestra dances away in sonata form, and once in awhile the dancing resembles peasant stomping at a village festival. A movement full of energy, it ends in a blaze of rhythmic good humor.

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