Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Reading Beethoven's 7th

Beethoven's 7th Symphony in A major was first performed in 1813, and was immediately so popular that the second movement had to be encored. Beethoven himself called it one of his best works; and if I hear Wagner's "apotheosis of dance" catch-phrase for the symphony too many more times I might scream. (This bit of music-criticism-by-sound-bite is repeated at least as often as the symphony itself.) Beethoven's 7th does for a bright, sunny major key what Beethoven's 5th did for a dark, stormy minor key: it stretches the limits of orchestral sound to create a richly inventive, extroverted work that flat-out owns its corner of the symphonic repertoire.

The first movement begins with a long, slow introduction that consists, mainly, of decorative scales and introductory-sounding chord progressions, though a charming and noble melody also appears a couple times. Then a lively sonata breaks forth and runs itself breathless with joy. The main theme is marked by an energetic "dah-dit-dot" rhythm which haunts every corner of the movement, including a secondary theme that first appears in C-sharp minor. The exposition ends with a striking scale passage that reminds me of a spring-driven clock being wound up. The next surprise is an ostinato passage in the coda that builds up to a huge climax, over a bass line circling chromatically (i.e. by half-step intervals) around C-sharp.

Movement II is an unusual slow movement in several ways. For one, it isn't particularly slow ("Allegretto" means "a little on the fast side"). For another, it has always upstaged the other three movements. Instantly popular, it remains one of Beethoven's greatest hits - even apart from the noisier and more exuberant movements surrounding it. The fact that it is in A minor makes it unusually close, for a slow movement, to the symphony's overall key of A major. And its form is a bit puzzling too; it is either a theme and variations in which a second theme makes a couple of incongruous appearances, or an ABABA-type thing in which the A section contains variations. Plus, there are bridge passages and a bit of, heck! Let's just call it a free-form novelty and leave it at that! You won't care anyway, because you will be so captivated by the melancholy marching theme, its sweeping countermelody, and the unexpected beauty of the second theme that interrupts the variations, that you won't care what label the art snobs stick on it.

Movement III is, natch, a scherzo. Marked "Presto" (which translates as "lickety split"), it bubbles and froths with merriment. When I hear this piece, my imagination conjures images of champagne flowing and happy people laughing and conversing. The central trio ("Presto meno assai," i.e. "not so lickety split") has a more dancelike character, touched with wistfulness and, unless my imagination deceives me, a subtle hint of nausea in its sharp waves of loudness and softness. My totally unsupported guess is that Beethoven meant this as a humorous musical picture of some stone-faced drunk trying to act sober. The champagne-pouring, laughing, and conversation return, but the movement isn't over; the trio comes back for a second tipsy dance (something that often happens in the works of Beethoven and later composers - the double trio, I mean, not the tipsiness). Then, after a third run through the scherzo, Beethoven gives you a musical pinch: he starts in on the trio for a third time - just long enough to make you flinch and wonder if this movement could go on forever - then laughs in your face with five quick, closing chords.

The finale is another spirited sonata, beginning with two loud, emphatic, musical Ahems, followed by a first theme that reminds me of a hot-rod revving its engine. This theme is in two parts, like a subject for variations, but it is followed by a passage of solid, sonata-form transition material, full of throat-clearings, revvings, and a bit of soaring melody. A second theme finally emerges, vacillating between E major and C-sharp minor, and then the hot-rod takes off in a brilliant codetta. Whether the development introduces a new theme is an open queston; the first music you hear after a full restatement of the first theme actually seems to be development based on the throat-clearing motif, with a countermelody added to help keep it going. In the recap the second theme returns in an unambigous A major. (Compare this to the second theme of Movement I, which remains in the minor on its final return.) Finally, the movement plunges into a lengthy coda in which, once again, the bass line moves around chromatically, creating a next-to-last-minute surge of uncertainty that is finally resolved by a last-minute glory of dazzling A major. After one or two last revs the hot-rod takes off for good, and the final chords sound final indeed.

This symphony is not to everyone's taste. Though it may not be guilty, it is at least susceptible to the charge of being tastelessly noisy. Wiki cites a conductor who allegedly likened the symphony to "a lot of yaks jumping about." However, its enduring place among the most-played and -popular symphonies of Beethoven, or any composer, suggests that whatever got those yaks jumping is infectious.

IMAGES: A bust of Beethoven; a Viennese masqued ball at which Beethoven's 7th Symphony was performed; yaks. EDIT: As a rare bonus, here is a video of the ENTIRE 7th Symphony, as Herbert von Karajan conducts (I think) the Berlin Philharmonic:

1 comment:

Norman Teigen said...

I am happy to come across your site. I am very interested in classical music. I have been listening to so much Mozart and Bach in the last six months, that I need to listen to Beethoven. I will start with the 7th Symphony. Thanks for your blog.