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11. Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, II. Allegretto

July 9, 2011

Beethoven was the composer who bridged the Classical Era and the Romantic Era, the point between them often pinpointed at 1803, when he unleashed his revolutionary 3rd Symphony. There are noted features about pieces in different times in Beethoven’s career, and his work is often divided into three periods:

– Early (largely following Classical style)
– Middle (pushing at or redefining the limits of Classical structure)
– Late (totally exploring uncharted territory)

A similar topic about Beethoven is that his style (taken as a whole) is the perfect marriage of Classical and Romantic ideals – he maintains the form, precision, control, logic, and balance of the Classical Era, while simultaneously expressing the drama, passion, and “hugeness” of the Romantic Era. His Seventh Symphony is classified as a middle-period work, and we’ll see this dualism in action.

Listen and Watch on Youtube:
Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, II. Allegretto

0:15 – After a kind of mysterious opening chord from the woodwinds, the lower strings (violas, cellos, basses) introduce the main theme. One could say that there is not really a melody in this (yet), and perhaps Beethoven is drawing attention to the rhythmic pulse (long, short-short long, long) as the main idea. As we saw him use a “building block” approach in the first movement of his 5th Symphony, this rhythmic idea here will serve as the building block for this movement.

1:03 – Second iteration – As this movement progresses, we’ll see that Beethoven will take a strategy of “start with an interesting idea, and see how many different times we can reiterate it and develop it and keep things interesting.” So the second time now, the violins are added in, and a melody begins to emerge underneath in the cellos.

1:49 – Third iteration – The melody rises up to the violins, and now the orchestra starts to build in volume and intensity.

2:34 – Fourth iteration – Now, the whole orchestra is in it, and there are all sorts of ideas happening at the same time. Listen for the lower strings adding a new rhythmic idea, in some technical terms, they are playing a triplet figure, while other parts of the orchestra are playing in a duplet figure, so there is this 3-against-2 rhythmic tension. Listen to the violins soar at 2:52. And meanwhile, several instruments continue the “long, short-short long, long” idea. And with all these different ideas layered on top of each other, take note that you can yet hear each idea with perfect clarity. To me, the level of craftsmanship and quality of construction of this section is mind-boggling.

But let’s keep going – note how dramatic and emotional this section is. It’s so powerful. Huge and towering. Sort of fiery and angry. Yet, with a responsible conductor at hand to interpret Beethoven (And Leonard Bernstein here is among the best ever), the music doesn’t just take off and spin into an emotional frenzy – it’s all under complete control, which somehow, I think, actually adds to the emotional impact of this section, because the tension in all of this is sustained for so long, and it doesn’t give you that climax that would settle the matter – instead, it just keeps marching onwards in all of it’s power and intensity, while all firmly grounded to that first main premise. So here, I see that perfect balance of Classical control and Romantic fire. Lastly, with the violins soaring, timpani thundering, brass punctuating, lower strings lurking.. what is the emotion of this section? Is it anger? Desperation? A cry of the soul? I’ve listened to this many times, and i’m honestly not sure what it is. But i’ll say this, that this is a very complex emotional expression here, and this boggles my mind too. So Beethoven boggles both sides of my brain at once, which is yet mind-boggling in and of itself…

3:26 – How do you follow up something once it’s gotten so huge? Cool off, and go in a different direction – here, Beethoven switches from A minor to A major. Here, a little more lyrical. Yet, still with this yearning feeling about it, and not quite settled.

4:53 – But, back to the main theme again, fifth iteration. Listen to the solo woodwinds holding the melody, with the strings adding a quiet rhythmic layer “chattering” underneath.

5:53 – Now, this gets really interesting. Beethoven takes the main idea and turns it into a fugue, which is neither Classical nor Romantic, but a Baroque idea. The Baroque Era preceded the Classical Era, and it’s champion was Johann Sebastian Bach, who we will get to sometime.

6:43 – After a repeated “hammering” on one note in some instruments, we’re led cleanly out of the fugue section back into the main theme, briefly (for a sixth half-iteration), and then it goes into the lyrical section again.

7:40 – Something starts to stir here, kind of signaling that we’re at the coda section now. The main theme gets choppped up, reduced, passed around a lot, and it gets very quiet. And then suddenly it builds up very quickly, and then ends almost as mysteriously as it began.

I (particularly) hope you enjoyed this movement. This is my single favorite Beethoven work (if i’m allowed to count individual movements), and the more I listen to it the more I discover and appreciate it. And by the way, Beethoven was just about totally deaf when he composed this. THAT’s mind-boggling.

Next: Not sure yet! Maybe one more Beethoven piece before I wrap up..

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One Comment
  1. Great rundown, I was just listening to the Allegretto yesterday in fact… That fugue is so great.

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