Length: c. 36 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 1, 1921, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Like the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth are a set of “untwins,” contrasting works created basically side-by-side. They also share a connection with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838), who was part musician and part engineer, but mostly an entrepreneurial salesman.
Maelzel was named “court mechanician” in Vienna in 1808, and one of his principal product lines was ear trumpets, which Beethoven eagerly – desperately – tried. Maelzel also created the Panharmonicon, a mechanical chamber orchestra. (Such devices were very popular; Maelzel also created a mechanical trumpeter, and he purchased a mechanical chess player for his line-up of traveling attractions.)
The inventor persuaded the composer – with a much-needed loan – to write a piece celebrating Wellington’s victory at the battle of Vittoria for the Panharmonicon, which they would take to London, where Wellington was a national hero. To raise money for this tour, they would give concerts in Vienna featuring the new piece performed in Beethoven’s version for live orchestra. These concerts were quite successful, but Beethoven and Maelzel fell out over ownership of the music and Beethoven filed – and eventually dropped — a lawsuit against Maelzel in Vienna. (Which did not stop Beethoven later from being one of the early adopters of the metronome, Maelzel’s brand name for a mechanical timekeeper he devised, based on a Dutch inventor’s ideas.)
Those fund-raising concerts (two in December 1813, and one Beethoven produced for himself in January 1814, after the break with Maelzel) included the premiere of the Seventh Symphony, which he had completed over a year earlier. The first of these concerts was also a charity benefit for soldiers wounded at the recent battle of Hanau; a worthy patriotic cause, but also clever cross-promotion. The occasion and Beethoven’s celebrity were such that the orchestra was almost an all-star band. Beethoven’ favored quartet leader, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, was the concertmaster and next to him sat the violinist/composer Louis Spohr. Domenico Dragonetti led the basses, and composers and pianists Giacomo Meyerbeer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Ignaz Moscheles all played percussion in the battle piece, for which composer Antonio Salieri served as a sort of assistant conductor. Beethoven conducted and all of the music was much admired, though to the composer’s irritation the Seventh Symphony was referred to as a “companion piece” to Wellington’s Victory.
The Symphony begins with a long and profound introduction, before kicking into kinetically energized music, which characterizes the entire work and has generated the many allusions to dance that dominate commentaries on it. The introduction predicts the harmonic journeys coming in the rest of the Symphony as the main body of the movement foretells its rhythmic obsessions, and the startling coda walks the wild side.
The following Allegretto – the work has no really slow movement – is a solemnly welling beauty intensified by counterpoint. It had to be encored at the premiere, and was so popular in the 19th century that it often was substituted into other Beethoven symphonies.
The Scherzo is a blazingly fast one, with a much slower Trio section. Beethoven reverses some of the dynamic surprises for the repeated sections and plays additional jokes with the scoring.
Also very fast, the finale picks up the wildness initiated in the first movement and spins it into a breathless but utterly joyful mania, ending with a coda that mirrors the aggressive beast that closes the first movement.