Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827. Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. Completed 1812, first performance December 8, 1813, in Vienna. Scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, tympani, and strings.

Over two thousand years ago, an island near the mouth of the Rhine River was occupied by a people known as the Batavi or Batavians. The name of their settlement, ``Betouwe,'' derives from ``bet,'' or beet, and ``ouwe,'' which translates as meadow or pasture. Recalling that the ``w'' in Northern European languages is pronounced as the English ``v'', one can trace various spellings through the ages, including Betuwe, Betho, Beethove, and of course Beethoven. The composer's ancestors wandered through parts of what are now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, eventually settling in Bonn, which would become the birthplace of one history's greatest musicians.

Beethoven's first sketches for what would become the Seventh Symphony appear in a book that dates back to 1809 (although some themes can be traced back to a set of variations published in 1783, when the precocious teenager was already working as a harpsichordist and organist). The second decade of the 19th Century was a turbulent one, marred by Napoleonic campaigns and the secondary wars they encouraged. At one point Beethoven was forced to retreat to his brother's cellar and cover his head with pillows to escape the painful noise caused by French artillery bent on conquering Vienna, where he now made his home. The disturbances clearly had an effect on his output, for a glance at a catalog shows that he produced remarkably few works between 1810 and 1814 compared to the surrounding years.

Nevertheless, Beethoven continue to work as best he could, generating what some consider his best symphony, the Seventh. Richard Wagner called it ``the apotheosis of the dance,'' both one of the most famous and one of the most insightful comments ever made about a piece of music.

And yet Wagner's observation is not the whole truth, for the symphony does not so much glorify the dance as capture the essence of dance rhythms. With the exception of a relatively brief introduction that lulls us into placidity, the first movement has a driving rhythm reminiscent of a peasant celebration. Even the slower second movement (which is to be played at an Allegretto, or ``slightly fast'', tempo, rather than the more common Largo or Adagio) has a stately grace that almost begs to be decorated by a procession of courtiers. The third, written in the 3/4 time of a waltz, brings to mind a ballroom filled with swirling costumes. And the final movement zips along at an irrepressible pace that threatens to sweep the entire orchestra off its feet and around the theater, caught up in the sheer joy of performing one of the most perfect symphonies ever written.

© 1995, Geoff Kuenning

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