Orchestras around the world have included Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in their programme schedules this year, and with good reason: the work celebrates its 200th birthday this year today.
Beethoven himself conducted its première on 8 December 1813 at the hall of the Vienna University. It was a charity concert to raise money for Austrians widowed and orphaned by the battle of Hanau which turned the tide against the French in the Napoleonic war. The concert was promoted by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, Beethoven’s friend and inventor of the metronome, in a programme that also included Beethoven’s ‘Battle Symphony’ (or ‘Wellington’s Victory’). This is in itself an interesting story, but suffice it now to point out that the ‘Wellington’ referred to is Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, brother to 6th Governor-General of India Lord Richard Wellesley and responsible for the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799.
Beethoven had actually begun work on the Seventh in 1811 and completed it by early summer the next year. In stark contrast to his earlier symphony (the ‘Pastoral’), this composition is a “continuous, cumulative celebration of joy”, in the words of David Wyn Jones, resulting in his “most incessantly energetic symphony, depending on untiring rhythmic articulation.” Indeed, Richard Wagner called it the “apotheosis of the dance” for this very same feature.
The première concert featured some of the most prominent musicians of the time. Beethoven’s violinist friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh (who also premiered many of Beethoven’s string quartets) was concertmaster; other string players included composers Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the much-maligned (and unjustly too) Antonio Salieri, and the double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti.
Poor Beethoven was already quite deaf by now, and Spohr describes one rehearsal: “Beethoven had accustomed himself to indicate expression to the orchestra by all manner of peculiar bodily movements. At piano he crouched down lower and lower as he desired the degree of softness. If a crescendo entered he gradually rose again; as a sforzando occurred he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder; and at forte he jumped into the air. It was obvious the poor man could not hear the piano of his music.”
The concert was such a triumph that it was repeated four days later. The symphony’s second movement was so popular that it had to be encored, and briefly saw life as a separate concert piece in its own right. Beethoven himself is believed to have considered this symphony as one of his best works.
Conductor, composer and musicologist Leonard Bernstein elaborated on Beethoven’s Seventh in a lecture: “Beethoven was not a great melodist, and some of the orchestration is even bad… What makes it interesting is the form. With Beethoven, the form is all; because it is a case of what note succeeds every other note. In Beethoven’s case it is always the right next note… No composer had that, not even Mozart, to that degree. Where everything is so unpredictable and yet so right. It all works out. You can rely on it. You know the next note has to be the next note and the only next note. That makes his form perfect. How he had this, nobody knows, because he struggled, he scratched out, If you see his sketches, you see the agonies that this man went through. And what appears as the final product looks as if it was simply ‘phoned in.’ Directly from God. That’s what’s so incredible.”
Beethoven’s Seventh has a special place in my heart, not least for its importance to the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble in London I played in and return to. When the orchestra embarked on its début CD recording, this work was chosen by conductor Alan Hazeldine, along with Schubert’s Unfinished. The recording sessions at the studio concert hall in the Yehudi Menuhin School Cobham were certainly among the high points of my music playing career. The band was in such fine fettle that huge swathes of the two symphonies were recorded in a single take. It was an experience of a lifetime to discover first-hand how a professional recording was made.
I have been fortunate to hear Joshua Bell lead the Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields in an all-Beethoven concert from the violin at the Hexagon in Reading, where this symphony shared programme space with the gorgeous Violin Concerto. He conducted the Symphony from the first desk of the violins, sharing his desk with Harvey D’Souza.
Bell has this to say about the Seventh: “There’s no better example of this celebration, this triumph of the human spirit than this. It was my first big symphony I fell in love with. It was my mother’s favourite. And the slow movement is the crown jewel of it, maybe of all of the symphonies. It’s the most perfect example of grief and lament, but in a way that’s not over-the-top.”
This movement was used to telling effect in the 1980 film “The Competition” featuring Richard Dreyfus and Amy Irving.
Not everyone has been a fan, though. Clara Schumann’s father Friedrich Wieck was convinced Beethoven must have been intoxicated while writing this, and Carl Maria von Weber found in the grinding bass line in the first movement’s coda enough proof that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse.” Sir Thomas Beecham felt the third movement was like “a lot of yaks jumping about.”
You can listen to the whole of Beethoven’s Seventh on YouTube, where you have many choices, notably Riccardo Muti leading the Philadelphia Orchestra and Paavo Jarvi with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.
Or you could get the CD (between Rs. 350 to 400) on the Rhythm House website, where the top choices are Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic; Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the helm of l’Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; and a very robust performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Or you can watch Leonard Bernstein himself on DVD, in a magical performance of this work from the Vienna Philharmonic.
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 December 2013 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)