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Symphony No. 7, in A Major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven

Although Beethoven composed his first six symphonies in the first eight years of the new century, he stopped writing symphonies altogether for four years after that.  Unlike many of his other major works, Symphony No. 7 did not occupy his attention for years before it took its final shape, but rather he composed the complete work in early 1812.  In the years between composing the 6th and the 7th symphonies, Beethoven consolidated new styles and techniques: he enlarged his harmonic scope and intensified the technique of his subjective expression.

In April 1813, Symphony No. 7 received a private performance at the residence of Beethoven's pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and on December 8th, the composer conducted the first public performance of the work. Its premiere was a benefit concert for soldiers wounded in the battle that had failed to stop Napoleon at Hanau earlier that year. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, Beethoven's friend and a good musician as well as a mechanical genius, organized the fundraiser.

Over the course of time, the musical intensity of Symphony No. 7 has been described as transcendent, astonishing, and universal. Critics and other composers have variously tried to explain the movements programmatically, teetering on the edge of absurdity with their analyses. What does bind all of their comments together is the realization that many parts of this symphony embody dance and march rhythms. Rhythm itself seems to be the driving force of the work. Each of the movements grows out of a rhythmic figure that characterizes the whole movement in much the same way that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is dominated by its well-known opening, rhythmic four-note motto. In emphasizing the rhythmic aspects, Beethoven seems to have limited the use of melody; some of the rhythmic figures are defined by as little as one single note while other longer ones are definitely understated, allowing the listeners to concentrate on the rhythmic force.

The structures of the movements follow traditional sonata form or sonata imbued forms, extended in Beethoven’s use with long development sections as well as codas and heroic interpolations. The colorful orchestration of the work strongly emphasizes the use of solo woodwinds, especially flute and oboe.

After a long, slow introduction, Poco sostenuto, with probably a sense of hearkening back to Haydn in its form, the charming melody of the first movement, with its mounting rhythmic tension, evolves into the dancing Vivace that led Wagner to call this symphony the very apotheosis of the dance. The second movement, Allegretto, mostly in a minor tonality, is a lovely, varied processional, both peaceful and solemn. It includes languid woodwind dominated trios. During the 19th century, this movement was very popular and played frequently on occasions of mourning. The movement can be divided into five sections, with the first, third, and fifth encompassing one set of themes and the other sections presenting another theme. What Berlioz labeled a “profound sigh” begins the movement. The second section relieves the tension of the first.  From the first trio, a glorious fugue built on the main theme emerges. After the second trio, the movement relaxes into the sigh with which it began. 

The third movement, in which the winds have a prominent place, takes the form of an expanded scherzo, Presto, with extra measures added from time to time that tend to surprise the listener. The contrasting slower trio section repeats. The French composer d’Indy, perhaps correctly, traced its thematic origins to an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn. 

The finale, Allegro con brio, heavily and often irregularly accented, is a movement of enormous vigor and energy, which critics have often labeled bacchanalian because of its wild and surging rhythmic motion. The theme is embellished with sixteenth-note passagework, which projects a feeling of urgency. The coda grows from two repeated bass notes, again rhythmically defined.

The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Program notes by Susan Halpern.