Beethoven’s symphonic canon shows a truly remarkable disparity in content and scale.
He appears to have composed his first eight symphonies in pairs during the years 1800-1812. In the second of the early pair, Beethoven was already showing that independence of mind which we now take for granted. No 3 is grandiose and celebratory, soon to be followed by the somewhat enigmatic yet jovial No 4. Next come the fateful No 5 and the pastoral, picturesque No 6.
For No 7, although Beethoven provides a “classical” slow introduction, what follows caused Richard Wagner in later years to describe the symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance”. In No 8 we find a compact, tender and intimate statement; “my little symphony”, Beethoven called it. The musical world had to wait until 1824 for the crowning glory: No 9, the “Choral”.
So to No 7 – rhythmic, hard driven and at times relentless. Without a truly slow movement, Beethoven in his wisdom provides an oasis of calm in the form of an Allegretto. (Our music theory books tell us that this word is to be interpreted as rather lively and quick – the diminutive of Allegro.)
The composer was 43, and his popularity was at its height, when he conducted the first performance in December 1813 at the University of Vienna. The composer Louis Spohr was a member of the orchestra, and he commented afterwards on the embarrassing spectacle of the deaf Beethoven endeavouring to hear the sounds of the orchestra.
1ST MOVEMENT POCO SOSTENUTO – VIVACE
The slow introduction establishes a panoply of daring tonal relationships, wherein the strength of this symphony lies.
The key of A major is firmly established in the opening chord. Out of this, with the utmost simplicity, the oboe produces a four-note motif which alternates with forte orchestral chords. By the tenth bar A major has been discarded, and the simple dotted quavers in the strings are now in F major. These dotted quavers lead to progressive chord formations of powerful intent, but by bar 23 a tender but rhythmic woodwind motif in C major has taken over. This in turn is taken up by the strings, until a pattern of minim chords and dotted quaver scale passages is established, based on the tonic of F major.
The introduction draws to its close in a seemingly simplistic fashion. Reiterated quavers from the wind balance the rhythmic pattern established way back in bar 23, until all that remains are solitary octave Es (the leading note of F major) leading directly into the Vivace as the dominant of A major.
The Vivace is in 6/8 time. A rhythmic pattern of dotted quaver – semiquaver – quaver permeates the movement.
The key relationships established in the movement’s slow opening are to be repeated throughout the Vivace. The development begins firmly in C major, and then moves into F for a caprice based on the Vivace’s opening theme. This leads to a climax of some power before the Coda moves through A and into AI major with some wrenching brutality. An ever-increasing dynamic follows, played partly over a descending bass ostinato, for some 22 bars during which the dotted quaver – semiquaver – quaver figure is absent. Meanwhile the key has returned to A major, and is stated quite emphatically in the movement’s final three bars.
2ND MOVEMENT ALLEGRETTO
The home key of this elegaic movement is A minor, and it is in 2/4 time. The rhythm is dactylic (stressed crochet followed by two dotted quavers), giving the movement the character of a slow march.
From out of the opening chord – held over three bars – a simple yet sublime theme emerges, played by the lower strings. Twice more this theme will be repeated during the movement, each time an octave higher, with ever enriching harmony and dynamics.
Following the exposition of the main theme, an A major episode, more flowing in character, is introduced. This leads in turn to the second playing of the A minor theme. The development section now follows in C major, giving way in due course to the third appearance of the A minor theme.
The alternate A major theme reappears, now marked Dolce (it would not come amiss if “misterioso” was added). This rises and falls to a pianissimo, only to terminate on a fortissimo bar which leads directly into the Coda.
Here Beethoven returns to A minor, and we hear a delicate fragmented version of the opening A minor theme deftly distributed throughout the orchestra. It terminates on the same chord with which the movement opened, approached by a somewhat dissonant phrase.
3RD MOVEMENT PRESTO
After two movements centred on the key of A major, this one opens in F major (a key which featured prominently in the first movement). Beethoven’s powerful sense of tonality again gives a spiritual drive to the music, in addition to the physical one based on pulse and rhythm.
The full orchestra plunges headlong into this movement, and the opening feature is a fast figure in triple time. By bar 15 the tonality is, once again, A major.
A variant on the opening theme is brought to a halt by an octave A leading into the Trio section. This has a simple theme of four notes with crescendo – diminuendo played in the woodwind, supported by octave violins. One can briefly pause and reflect before being plunged once more into the Presto, which returns to F major.
Beethoven has one further trick up his sleeve when he repeats the Trio. Again we have the Presto: only to be interrupted by just four bars of the Trio, nine bars from the movement’s end. This brings into sharp relief the final five whiplash chords.
4TH MOVEMENT ALLEGRO CON BRIO
A Bacchanalian fury pervades this movement, eclipsing that of the first and third movements. Rhythmically based, like the first movement, on a dactylic 2/4 time, the movement is again bound together by Beethoven’s daring tonality. A major is firmly established in the first bar by the hammered dominant chord of E. The equally emphatic first theme is underpinned by pedal Es in the celli and basses. A shift to C# minor introduces a contrasting motif, lighter and less hard-driven. This leads to the development section and a further disturbing key switch – this time to F major. This in turn leads to a full restatement of the main theme in C major. A moment of quietude follows, in which the flute is entrusted with the main theme.
Now the recapitulation arrives, and Beethoven enriches his themes with a harmonic tapestry and ever-increasing dynamic until the opening bar of the Coda. This is marked “piano”, but rapidly lifts with drive and excitement to explode in a massive triple fortissimo. With just fifteen bars of the music left to play, and after all the juggling and jostling of tonality, the home key of A major is settled upon. Beethoven then drives his music to a starburst of power in the symphony’s final three bars.