Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: discover beethoven 7

Saturday November 6, 2010

Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92


This event features an engaging look at Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with a discussion of the intricacies of the Symphony with the audience. At the concert, audience members can apply their newly-acquired knowledge to enjoy the Orchestra’s rendition of the Symphony. Because the discussion takes the place of program notes in LACO’s “Discover” concert format, we offer an excerpt of program notes from LACO’s January 11, 2009 concert Yo-Yo Ma plays Golijov that concluded with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony:

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 may be somewhat less omnipresent in popular culture than the Fifth or the Ninth, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless. Beethoven is known for his obsessive treatment of rhythm, and this work in particular overflows with rhythmic drive. Written in 1811, it premiered as part of a charity concert in 1813. The orchestra at the concert was made up of the luminaries of the day including Johann Hummel (keyboard) and Antonio Salieri (violin and keyboard). Beethoven conducted the symphony, and it was so well-received that the second movement was given an encore on the spot.

There are four movements in the piece, the first of which is preceded by a slow introduction. Once the Vivace section of the movement gets underway, the music absolutely dances. It is one of Beethoven’s liveliest first movements and displays the characteristic charm and wit along with the intensity that we have come to expect from Beethoven.

The second movement is a transcendent theme and variations based on a consistent rhythm that pervades the entire movement: long-short-short-long-long. Jeffrey Kahane, a student of ancient Greek, has theorized that this rhythmic foundation was inspired by the poetic rhythm of dactylic hexameter. This meter was commonly used in many of the Greek and Latin epic poems, including both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Beethoven’s favorite book was the Odyssey, and there is apparently an entry in Beethoven’s diary that reads, “dactylic hexameter.” Simply put, a poetic line in this meter is made up of six dactyls, with a dactyl itself consisting of three syllables, the first of which is long and the second and third short. The sixth unit in a line is often not a dactyl, but instead two stressed syllables. So the last two units, or “feet,” make up a long-short-short-long-long rhythm. Perhaps this work is Beethoven’s Odyssey in music.

The third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is a vivacious scherzo. The composer excelled at these scherzos, writing fun and energetic music with many contrasts in color and dynamics, although—like the second movement—it is tightly focused on a prominent rhythmic pattern. The trio—the second part of the form, usually in a more lyrical contrasting style—is the only part of this movement that features a different rhythm. The trio’s melody was taken from an Austrian folk song that Beethoven encountered on a summer trip to Teplitz. The final movement features more rollicking dance-like music. Its intensity is heightened by regal horn lines that soar above the orchestra’s rhythmic action. The thrills are balanced with moments of pure sweetness, as Beethoven brings this magnificent masterpiece to a superb and lively close.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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