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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
The history of one of Beethoven’s greatest and most admired works, the Seventh Symphony, is inextricably bound to his most egregious excursion into schlock, Wellington’s Victory, or The Battle of Vittoria. The more staid musical commentators still speak of the ghastly anomaly of having both introduced to the public on the same occasion, and with the composer’s approval. The reason is clear and understandable, although music historians will only grudgingly admit that Beethoven could keep the pot boiling as well as the best (i.e., the least) of them. He was an eminently practical human being.
We have little factual information regarding the actual labors on the Seventh Symphony. We know that it was written in 1812, by which time virtually nothing was left of Beethoven’s hearing. The composer’s notebook indicates that he was at work on the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies virtually simultaneously, with some breaks to set down sketches for yet another symphony, his Ninth and last, which would not be completed until a decade later.
Two men play leading roles in the story of the Seventh Symphony’s introduction to the world: the composer, of course, being one, the other, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a pianist of little note, but possessing a marked mechanical bent.
It was Beethoven’s deafness that brought the two men together: Maelzel had invented a “new and improved” ear-trumpet, for which the composer served as an eager guinea pig. One can readily imagine to what commercial advantage such an endorsement would be put today. Maelzel was further renowned as the inventor of an early form of metronome, which Beethoven in fact employed. But the jewel in Maelzel’s crown would be his Panharmonicon, an automatic symphony orchestra, so to speak, in which the instruments were mechanically played via a system of hammers and cylinders. Maelzel prevailed upon Beethoven to write for it an original piece, which they would take with the machine to London. He also persuaded Beethoven (with a timely loan of 50 gold ducats) to score the piece for a real symphony orchestra and to use its performance in Vienna to attract publicity and funds for the trip.
Thus, on December 8, 1813, Wellington’s Victory was performed by the genuine orchestra, alongside the Seventh Symphony and automated versions of pieces by Dussek and Pleyel. The concert was a considerable financial success, but when Maelzel claimed ownership of the battle piece, Beethoven broke with him. A month later, and without Maelzel’s involvement, Beethoven repeated the Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory at a concert entirely for his own benefit. (Maelzel would spend most of the rest of his life in the United States, which is a story for another day.)
Although today Anton Schindler is generally regarded as an unreliable biographer, there is no reason to discount his breathless account of the Symphony’s triumph on that occasion, with the audience demanding an encore of the Allegretto: Schindler’s swooning was seconded by a Viennese newspaper’s report that “the symphony brought forth applause which rose to the point of ecstasy.”
The Seventh Symphony took its time entering the repertory, but by the middle of the 19th century had become firmly entrenched as the particular darling of musicians among the Beethoven nine. And with this fame came a flood of verbal interpretations with which it has been associated, for better or worse, ever since.
Dancing and celebration have figured prominently in various famous musicians’ views of the Symphony. For Berlioz, the first movement was “a peasant dance”; to Schumann, the Allegretto depicted “a rustic wedding”; Wagner, in his detailed analysis, referred to the entire work as “the apotheosis of the dance.” And during the 20th century portions of the Seventh Symphony — particularly the Allegretto — were choreographed as often as any work not specifically intended to be danced, which infuriated the eminent British musicologist and teacher Sir Donald Francis Tovey, who, with Sir George Grove (of Grove Dictionary fame), told us that we had no right to see anything but music in the Seventh, as Beethoven had affixed no program to it. Harumph!
Whatever anyone may or may not “see” in the Seventh Symphony, its music has delighted and thrilled its hearers since it was first presented in Vienna nearly two centuries ago. Those who see in it dances, a wedding ceremony, a “bacchanalian orgy” (the finale, according to Leonard Bernstein), love it no less, and perhaps more, than those huffy British musicologists.
— Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.