Length: c. 35 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
Beethoven began his Seventh Symphony in the fall of 1811 and finished it in mid-1812, but it had to wait until the end of 1813 for its first performance. In the meantime, Napoleon had met with disaster in Russia and Wellington had defeated the French at Vittoria. With the end of the Napoleonic era in sight, if not at hand, Beethoven composed Wellington’s Victory and presented it, along with the Seventh Symphony, in a concert on December 8, 1813, to benefit Austrian soldiers who had been wounded in the battle of Hanau that fall (Napoleon had won that one). The concert was a stellar affair, with famous composers (Salieri, Hummel, Spohr, and Meyerbeer among them) joining in the orchestra. According to Spohr, “The new compositions of Beethoven pleased extremely, particularly the Symphony in A; the wonderful second movement was encored and also made upon me a deep and lasting impression. The execution was a complete masterpiece, in spite of the uncertain and frequently laughable direction of Beethoven.”
Wellington’s Victory was a sensation, and became the most popular work of Beethoven’s career. The symphony was also a hit, its jubilance fitting the occasion of its premiere so well that the critic of the Wiener Zeitung referred to it as a “companion piece” to Wellington’s Victory. A repeat of the entire concert was quickly put on four days later, and the music was done again in January and February, with Beethoven adding the Eighth Symphony for good measure. By 1816, the Seventh was available in no fewer than six published arrangements for playing at home or in social gatherings (among them wind nonet, string quintet, piano trio, and piano four hands), a mark of popularity in an era when such arrangements filled the function that recordings have now.
The Seventh, a sprawling, jovial giant, is notable for the compelling power of its rhythms, with each movement dominated by the very characteristic rhythmic pattern of its principal theme. The joyous and exuberant outer movements both build to hair-raising climaxes. The first movement’s spirited romp gives way only to occasional episodes of comical galumphing. The overpowering thrust of the finale’s main theme comes not only from the strings’ whirling reel, but from heavily accented offbeats in the basses, winds, and timpani that push and pull like a huge engine. On the few occasions when the momentum lets up, the tension only increases.
Such a work has no place for a slow movement, though the second-movement Allegretto has often been turned into one by conductors taking the movement at half speed. At any speed, it is much darker than the rest of the symphony. Its mysterious theme is layered over with a complex web of countermelodies, and occasionally interrupted by a sunnier contrasting section, but its inexorable long-short-short rhythm is always present.
The third movement’s principal theme begins in one key (F) and ends in another (A), immediately letting us know that this movement’s mission is to seek out new key relationships, and boldly go where no scherzo has gone before. In a particularly improbable modulation, it moves from F to D for the middle section, in which Beethoven gives a simple tune (a pilgrim’s song, according to one source) some remarkable clothing: horns play the bass line and violins drone like small bagpipes, the drone becoming a blaze of glory when the trumpets take it over in their only real moment in the sun. Though the entire main section is played three times, Beethoven writes out the repetitions instead of using repeat signs, and in a bit of whimsy, reverses some dynamic instructions, so that loud interjections the first time around become whispered asides the next time.
— Howard Posner