Notes by TŌN oboist JJ Silvey
“As a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder . . . at the entrance of a forte he jumped into the air.”
So Louis Spohr, the renowned German composer and violinist, described Beethoven’s tempestuous conducting at the premiere of the Seventh Symphony. The occasion was a patriotic one. On December 8, 1813, Spohr, along with a starry group of musicians including Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Salieri, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, gathered to play in an orchestra led by Beethoven as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. For this event the composer, by then an emphatic critic of the megalomaniacal Napoleon, debuted his Seventh Symphony alongside another new work, Wellington’s Victory, written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte’s forces in the Battle of Vitoria.
Though the Seventh Symphony does not share the explicit political immediacy of Wellington’s Victory, it is impossible to dissociate it from Beethoven’s resolute idealism. Even at a time in his career plagued by worsening deafness and dire financial hardship, Beethoven was able to suffuse the work with a palpable sense of revolutionary zeal. As a whole, the symphony is exuberant, grand, and unbridled in its dual capacities for jubilance and sincerity. The first movement begins with a gracefully unfolding oboe solo punctuated by chordal “hits” from the full orchestra. The rest of the poco sostenuto introduction alternates between poised, lilting wind passages and stentorian iterations from the orchestra which, before long, give way to a cheerful vivace permeated by lively dotted rhythms.
Triumph Over Tyranny
The second movement, though marked allegretto, is the work’s dramatic zenith. A simple, serious rhythmic theme is introduced by low strings and is soon interwoven with a grave countermelody. These two ideas compete in increasing force as more instruments take them up, building steadily to an intense, climactic scene. This gives way to a dreamlike, yearning middle section, soon interrupted by a re-introduction of the theme. Another climax results, this time texturally enriched by deeper layers of Beethoven’s characteristically masterful counterpoint. In the third movement, a rollicking presto, fleet, playful wind solos are heard among bombastic, high-spirited dance episodes. The spectacle is occasionally curtailed by the emergence of an unhurried, stately theme. Finally, the fourth movement arrives to declare victory. Beethoven, the revolutionary, has had an ecstatic vision of mankind’s final triumph over tyranny.