Symphony No. 7

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Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Ludwig van Beethoven            
Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


“My Grand Symphony in A…” —Letter from the composer to impresario Peter Salomon, 1815.

The Seventh Symphony is boisterous, intense, energetic and tuneful. Opus 92 was completed in 1812, the year in which Napoleon was beginning to fail in his conquests, and this status was undoubtedly pleasing to Beethoven. Celebrating this turn of events, the Seventh Symphony premiered at a concert in Vienna on December 8, 1813, to benefit troops wounded in the Battle of Hanau, a small but tactical victory on October 31, 1813, which routed Napoleon into a retreat in the War of the Sixth Coalition. 

The audience was pleased and demanded that the second movement be repeated. Beethoven, who was conducting, was energized,  and Spohr reported in his Autobiography that “as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder… at the entrance of a forte he jumped into the air.”  A consistent rhythmic drive was intoxicating and stimulating. Antony Hopkins in The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven noted, “The Seventh Symphony, perhaps more than any of the others, gives us a feeling of true spontaneity—the notes seem to fly off the page as we are born along on a floodtide of inspired invention.  Beethoven spoke of it fondly as “one of my best works…” Although Carl Maria von Weber wrote in his Beethoven Biography that “the extravagances of his genius have now reached the non plus ultra, and Beethoven must be ripe for the madhouse…” nothing could have been farther from the truth.

In fact, just the opposite. The composer was in control of desperate personal circumstances, living in one of the most painful periods of his life.  His deafness (attributable to arterial disease) was growing worse daily. His deep love affair with Theresa Brunswick had collapsed. (He had no success in romance during his lifetime… it was said that he proposed to sixteen women who all turned him down.) He needed money. In spite of all of this, he drove into one of the most creative periods of his lifetime, and with Opus 92 penned one of the most dramatic thrillers in his repertoire.

Like the First, Second and Fourth symphonies, the Seventh begins with an introduction, in this case marked poco sostenuto. After a large orchestral A major chord, the oboe sings a wistful theme while clarinet, horn and bassoon latch onto the melody. The presentation is underscored by heavy orchestral punctuations marking the phrases. Two subsidiary melodies follow. After a small pause, strings begin to murmur, a stuttering repetition of E prepares for the vivace entrance of the flute, offering the folk-like, swaggering first theme. Beethoven then works his magic, taking the unpretentious tune and making the major subject of a large, complex movement. Although a second theme makes an appearance, it is the first which occupies the musical spotlight. Surprise and drama are added by Beethoven’s sudden dynamic changes and harmonic coloring.

In spite of the Allegretto marking, the second movement is serious. At one point, Beethoven considered changing the marking to Andante quasi Allegretto since he did not want this movement “taken too fast.” After an introductory chord from the winds, a persistent rhythmic pattern is established (a dactyl—long, short, short, then followed by two long) which haunts the movement.  The pattern is simple and unforgettable.  Two melodies, one insistent and steady, the other a gentle statement sung by violas and celli provide the thematic substance. Beethoven proceeds to spin exquisite variations on the first. The march theme was originally intended for the Third Razumovsky Quartet but found its ultimate destiny in this symphony.  The movement closes with a sturdy fugal section which maintains its hold on the opening rhythmic pattern used throughout as an ostinato. At times, this movement has been excerpted and played alone on concert programs.  Occasionally, conductors in the 19th century freely incorporated it within the body of the Second and Eighth symphonies to increase their popularity!

The third movement pops out with a bright scherzo, bouncing in a skipping meter, irrepressibly filled with the joy of life. A small central trio in D major combines clarinet, bassoon, and horn, offering a contrasting interlude based on a hymn tune from southern Austria. Beethoven called for a repeat of this calming section before the buoyant scherzo resumes its original character.  Apart from a tiny hint of a return of the placid trio, driving energy never fades, and the movement concludes in high gear with five sharp orchestral chords.

The fourth movement, Allegro con brio, caps the symphony in another scherzo-like event encapsulated in Sonata form. He immediately releases all the stops at the first measure as the strings roar to the forefront with the rapidly boiling first theme.  The second theme retains that ignition, adding to the cauldron.  Toward the close, a flute sings a tiny recall of the opening theme of the first movement, but the fire consumes it, continuing into a blazing coda.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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