Beethoven’s glorious 7th Symphony has been described in many ways, but it is interesting to note how often the descriptions touch on dance & celebration.
Robert Schumann likened it to a peasant wedding. His bête-noire, the critic Ludwig Bischoff, agreed with him saying somewhat more verbosely that it
‘conjures up pictures of the autumnal merry-makings of the gleaners and wine-dressers, the tender melancholy of love-lorn youth, the pious canticle of joy and gratitude for nature’s gifts and the final outburst when joy beckons again and the dance melodies float out upon the air and none stands idle.’
Richard Wagner enthused that it was
‘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.’
Sir Thomas Beecham, on the other hand was not as high faluting, nor as complimentary: ‘What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.’
It was certainly a favourite of Beethoven himself, who regarded it as one of his finest works. He must have felt an added affection for it as the enthusiastic reception of its first performance, with demands for repeat performances, rescued him from serious debt. The piece has continued to delight and inspire players and audiences ever since.
Yet for all the symphony’s joyous energy, it is the hauntingly beautiful 2nd movement Allegretto that has been the most loved. Encored at the premiere, it was often performed as a stand alone piece in concerts & sometimes substituted for the slow movement in performances of Beethoven’s earlier symphonies. This is no bacchanalian revel, but the sense of movement and dance is still present in its measured, pulsing rhythm.
The movement has been used in popular culture both to convey and to elicit strong emotion. In this heartbreaking scene from Mr Holland’s Opus the high school music teacher drops the needle onto the record player to play the 2nd movement as he tells his students about the circumstances of the composition of the 7th Symphony as Beethoven confronted his growing deafness.
Just try to imagine Beethoven, standing on that podium, holding his baton, his hands waving gracefully through the air, and the orchestra in his mind is playing perfectly; the orchestra in front of him trying desperately just to keep up.
A student asks ‘if Beethoven couldn’t hear, how would he even know what the notes were. If he never heard a C how would he know that’s what he wanted played?’
‘Well… Beethoven wasn’t born deaf’. Mr Holland answers.
Holland’s son was born deaf and will never share his father’s love of music.
In The King’s Speech, the same music provides a moving counterpoint to the climactic scene when King George VI, ‘conducted’ by his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, overcomes his debilitating stutter to make the fateful radio broadcast to the British Empire declaring war on Germany.
The relentless forward movement of the allegretto and its measured slow build, reflects not only his personal determination and growing confidence, but the strength & resolution that he is asking of his audience.
On a less elevated note, Beethoven’s 7th also features prominently in that classic movie, It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown. In the excerpt below, Sally’s disappointment with Linus at the apparent non appearance of the Easter Beagle (‘never trust a man with a blanket‘), and Charlie Brown’s usual lamentation over his lack of friends is accompanied by a melancholy piano rendition of the 2nd movement before the joyful 3rd movement ushers in the appearance of a dancing Snoopy as the Easter Beagle.
Funnily enough, the same movie features Snoopy dancing with some Easter bunnies in a scene strangely reminiscent of the Matisse painting, La Danse, which we have chosen to illustrate our concert, the Apotheosis of the Dance.
We do hope you will join us this coming weekend to share some wonderful music, and stay after the concert to chat with the players. I can’t promise Bacchanalian revels, but there will be complimentary champagne and nibblies.