Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #7 in A major, Opus 92 (1812)

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Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827)

  1. Poco sostenuto -- vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto
  4. Finale: Allegro con brio

Wagner’s oft-quoted remark that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is “the apotheosis of dance", is only a little bit wrong. That the Seventh is the apotheosis of rhythm nobody will deny; each of the four movements rely on the reiteration of basic rhythms. The symphony, dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, was complete by July 19, 1812, and Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, sponsored its December 8 premiere at the University of Vienna. The concert, a benefit for soldiers wounded in a recent battle, featured Beethoven’s music and Maelzel’s contraptions. Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory, Opus 91, for Maelzel’s panharmonicon, a mechanical instrument; in addition, there was a piece played by a mechanical trumpeter. The enormously successful concert was repeated 3 times and boasted famous composers as performers: Meyerbeer, Hummel, Salieri and Spohr were all in the orchestra, which Beethoven conducted.

The introduction to the first movement is unusually long; its length is unprecedented for a symphony in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. The main body of the movement is marked by the solo flute playing a dotted dactylic rhythm. The Allegretto, if indeed a dance, as Wagner said, is a solemn one, perhaps a funeral march. The theme is presented four times, but each time it is varied and made more complex. Although the Allegretto is slow compared to the other movements, it does not have the tempo marking of a typical slow movement (i.e. Adagio). There is a common belief that the Allegretto tells a story. Each story, however, is different: It is the wedding ceremony of a village couple (Schumann), a procession in a cathedral (D’Ortigue), “a pastorale” (D’Indy) and a bombastic march (Lenz). Clearly, this is a movement that makes an immense personal impact; it was encored at the first performance and has even been choreographed. The Presto is in the form of a scherzo. It is twice interrupted by a slower trio, which features a melody thought to be taken from the Austrian Pilgrim’s Hymn. In Beethoven’s time, there was a rumor that he wrote the Finale while inebriated, due to the movement’s terrifying force. “It is [Beethoven] who gives the divine frenzy to man,” wrote one reviewer of this movement. Its rhythmic incisiveness, combined with its wild and swirling energy, caused Carl Maria von Weber to say that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse.” Perhaps he was. Nevertheless, he would grow riper still, and continue to produce increasingly unorthodox works of genius.