October 31, 2010
On paper, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is your typical symphony. It has four movements. The first begins with a slow introduction—something Haydn had done years before—and continues with a lively Vivace tempo. The second movement is a slow and methodical theme and variations. The third movement is a quick scherzo and trio, and the finale is a fiery Allegro. On paper, Beethoven’s Seventh is just an average run-of-the-mill symphony, often overshadowed by the Fifth and the Ninth.
But Beethoven’s Seventh is so much more than that.
The first time I heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I was sitting in a music history class my senior year in high school. Here’s what I knew of Beethoven at that point in my life: I knew he was a composer who had gone deaf, I knew parts of the Fifth and the Ninth Symphonies, and I had seen Fantasia, which features the frolicking of mythological creatures set to Beethoven’s Sixth. I had never heard the other symphonies of Beethoven, so I figured maybe I’d heard the best of them already. But then my teacher played the second movement of the Seventh Symphony during an exam. We didn’t know what the piece was, we were just supposed to figure out what form Beethoven had used to structure the movement.
When the teacher returned the exams the following week, I asked what the piece was. He said it was the Allegretto, the second movement, from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and then he played it again. I was stunned by its beauty, at the way Beethoven composed this “theme and variations“—that was the correct answer on the test—to grow in complexity with each passing variation. It was during that class that I realized a serious study of music had to be part of my life. This moment is an important part of my own personal history, and I think—I know—it had something to do with the specialness of Beethoven’s Seventh.
The entire Symphony is beautiful. There is so much charm in the first movement, so much energy in the third and the fourth. But it is the second movement that fascinates and enthralls. At the premiere, the second movement was so instantly popular, the orchestra had to play an encore of it. Can you imagine that nowadays? It would never happen! Good concert-goers like us don’t applaud between movements, so we don’t get encores of individual movements, no matter how cool they sound. But people realized right away that the second movement was different and unique. In popular culture, the Allegretto has made occasional appearances without the surrounding movements. For example, in Immortal Beloved, the 1994 (historically inventive) bio-pic about Beethoven, the Allegretto is used as underscore for an argument between Beethoven and his nephew. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a situation of mounting tension because Beethoven adds a new melodic or rhythmic component every time the theme begins again.
I won’t go into some of the really neat things about this work because that is the purpose of this concert; this concert will help you appreciate all that is special about the Seventh Symphony, not just what’s cool about the second movement. The notoriously hard to please Wagner once called this symphony “the apotheosis of the dance.” I just call it one of my favorite pieces ever. Sure, it’s not as serious and triumphant as the Fifth or as flashy as the Ninth, but it is not typical. It is quite simply, a masterpiece, and it changed my life.