udwig 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.
Later writers characterized the Seventh Symphony in various ways, but it is striking how many of the descriptions touch on its frenzy, approaching a bacchanal at times, and on its elements of dance. Richard Wagner’s poetic account is well known: “All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.”
Many of the descriptions of this symphony focus on dance – is it a dance like a waltz or minuet? Not at all – but Beethoven’s genius in this is the incredible rhythmic vitality of the entire work. The drive of this symphony rarely stops. This is Beethoven, the ‘rock star’ of classical music.
The first movement begins with the longest introduction in all symphonic literature, traveling through what at the time were unique harmonic key relationships (what are F Major and C Major doing in a piece ostensibly in A Major?) until he settles on an unlikely transition to the main theme – alternating E’s between the flute and strings, until finally we dive headlong into the Vivace.
The second movement is heartbreakingly beautiful and, unusual for a slow movement, was given an immediate encore at the symphony’s premiere. This work was later substituted in performances of other Beethoven symphonies throughout the century due to its popularity.
After the Allegretto, the Presto bursts into life. This has all the racing momentum of a typical Beethoven scherzo. It is twice interrupted by a slower Trio section (with another version of the long–short–short rhythmic pattern in its main theme) and yet its vitality seems irrepressible: a third and final attempt to establish the slower Trio theme is magnificently dismissed by five crisp orchestral chords. This scherzo is, however, in the ‘wrong’ key – the destabilising F major.
It is now the finale’s task to ram home the symphony’s tonic key, A major. The result is a magnificent bacchanal, pounding almost to a frenzy at the symphony’s seminal rhythmic pattern: long–short–short. The final build-up culminates in two huge full-orchestra climaxes, both marked triple forte – fff – the first time such an extreme dynamic had been used in orchestral music, and entirely appropriate for an ending that is both logical and dazzlingly affirmative.