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Symphony No. 7, Opus 92 (1813)
Program Notes by Jayce Keane

Symphony No. 7, Opus 92 (1813)
Beethoven (1770-1827)

[View the bottom of this page to listen to this selection as you enjoy the Program Notes]

“The extravagances of [Beethoven’s] genius have now reached the non plus ultra,
and Beethoven must be ripe for the madhouse…”  —Carl Maria von Weber, after hearing Symphony No. 7.

Beethoven himself called his energetic showpiece Seventh Symphony, “one of my best works.” Now that’s saying something. The exhilarating rhythmic drive of the piece led Antony Hopkins to write in The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven: “The Seventh Symphony, perhaps more than any of the others, gives us a feeling of true spontaneity—the notes seem to fly off the page as we are born along on a floodtide of inspired invention.” 

Wagner simply called it an “apotheosis of the dance,” while Carl Maria von Weber wrote that “the extravagances of his genius have now reached the non plus ultra, and Beethoven must be ripe for the madhouse…”

The sheer exuberance and lively, leaping rhythms of the Seventh are out of character for Beethoven, especially considering that he wrote it in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, while taking a badly needed rest.

Beethoven’s personal life was a mess. He had no luck in the romance department. During his lifetime, he’s said to have proposed to 16 women, who all turned him down. Just prior to his Seventh, a deep love affair fizzled. He was financially strapped. And arterial disease was causing him to grow increasingly deaf. Yet, despite all of this, he entered one of the most dynamic periods.

Of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Seventh is the one begging to be explained. Not so with the others—the “Choral” is guided by its text, the Fifth traces an emotional passage from grim determination to triumph, and Beethoven himself proclaimed his inspiration for the “Eroica” and described the movements of the “Pastoral.” But his Seventh offers no clues.

Beethoven was famous for reinvention and breaking boundaries, but until this point, he was not known for writing fun music. Yet, there it is—the epitome of fun. The Seventh’s boisterous nature is full of joyful first movements and exciting climaxes, with nary a relaxed moment. Whether its intention is pure delight or not, it’s the large-scale, buoyant, driving meters, the powerful rhythmic drive and, indeed, fun nature, that captivates the audience.

The Seventh was finished in 1812, about the time that Napoleon was beginning to lose ground, which no doubt buoyed Beethoven. It premiered in December 1813, at a benefit concert for soldiers wounded while fighting Napoleon’s army. Unlike some of Beethoven’s works, it was immediately popular, with the audience demanding to hear the second movement again. Beethoven, conducting, responded enthusiastically.

Composer Louis Spohr described Beethoven this way, “as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder… at the entrance of a forte he jumped into the air.” 

Rhythmic ingenuity is the cornerstone of this symphony. Beethoven scored it for a typical classical orchestra, with pairs of woodwinds and brass. His writing for the horns is especially dramatic. In the standard four-movement form, it begins with an introduction (also found in Beethoven’s First, Second and Fourth symphonies), this one slow and expanded, followed by a Vivace (sonata form), in a dance-like triple meter.

The second movement, in A minor, keeps the Allegretto embedded to the more exuberant movements. The third movement bursts with a scherzo, irrepressibly bounding in a skipping meter. A small central trio combining clarinet, bassoon, and horn, offers a contrasting interlude based on a hymn tune. This soothing section is repeated before the upbeat scherzo resumes. The driving energy never truly fades, and the movement concludes with five sharp orchestral chords.

The fourth movement, Allegro con brio, crowns the symphony in another scherzo-like episode in Sonata form. All the stops at the first measure are released, as the strings soar, and the first theme reaches a boil, the second theme retaining the moment. A flute briefly revisits the first movement’s opening theme—until the fervor consumes it, ending in a fiery coda.

The audience is left to wonder how Beethoven came up with so much energetic joy while on a quiet retreat and in the midst of so much turmoil.


Jayce Keane, who began her career as a journalist for The Rocky Mountain News, has been working in the orchestra industry and writing about music for 18 years. A longtime resident of California, she now lives in Colorado.