LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12)
Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai
I. Poco sostenuto–Vivace
III. Presto–Assai meno presto
IV. Allegro con brio
1810s: FRAMING CONQUERORS
When Beethoven composed his Seventh Symphony from 1811-12, campaigns of conquest stretched from the European to Pacific theatres. In April 1810, Kamehameha the Great's 28-year campaign to unify the Hawaiian Islands concluded in peaceful victory. Kamehameha's significant naval presence of war canoes pressured the aliʻi nui of Kauaʻi, Kaumualiʻi, to negotiate the island's surrender. In opposition, Napoleon Bonaparte's Russian Invasion in 1812 is remembered as a historically deadly campaign to force Emperor Alexander I into the Continental System, a blockade against the British Empire. Napoleon's Grande Armée was 450,000 strong when the invasion commenced in June. By November, 40,000 survived the Russian Winter to cross the Berezina River in retreat.
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony revisits a familiar figure surrounding the origins of the monumental Third Symphony of 1803-04. The composer's secretary, fellow composer, and pupil Ferdinand Ries recalls the circumstances of the Thirdʻs dedication:
"In writing this symphony, Beethoven had been thinking of Bonaparte, but Bonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time, Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven's closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Bonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title page and "Ludwig van Beethoven" at the very bottom. I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, after which he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal! He will also tread underfoot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title page, tore it in half, and threw it on the floor. The page had to be re-copied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica."
The Duke of Wellington's 1813 victory against Napoleon's younger brother, Joseph Bonaparte, in Vittoria signaled a turning tide in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon's earlier occupation of Vienna (1805,1809) sweetened Wellington's victory and became the subject of Beethoven's similarly titled battle symphony (Op. 91). Premiered on December 8, 1813, Wellington's Victory, paired with the premiere of the Seventh Symphony, was ecstatically well received. The performance, benefitting the soldiers of the Battle of Hanau, celebrated the wounded against the retreating French forces.
The Seventh Symphony's lack of a proper slow movement, overtly celebratory evocations, and heavy dance elements capture the world of its time and have remained timeless, more so than the programmatic realism and popularity of Wellington's Victory. Nevertheless, its symbolic triumph over tyranny is a revolution to dance away Napoleonic overreach. The 38-minute score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
APOTHEOSIS OF THE DANCE
Beethoven's joyful indulgence didn't escape composer Richard Wagner, whose account and description of the work are echoed as much as the music it describes:
"All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere–dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone."
The first movement (Poco sostenuto) opens with an exercise in patience and endurance; the four-minute introduction is Beethoven's most sustained opening gesture; a long-awaited triumph imminent. Beethoven taunts the galloping Vivace into existence, teasing and tempting the listener to second guess if the party horses will let loose. When it does, the energy revels in a pasture of Elysium, forecasting a Ninth Symphony joy. The second movement's A-minor Allegretto offers a sobering funeral procession and fugue cast into a five-part rondo. With the recurring A and B sections, Beethoven frames time with providential warnings: Absolute power corrupts absolutely, history is doomed to repeat itself. Two trios magnify the courtly dance of the Presto Scherzo, and the rustically incessant finale (Allegro con brio) unleashes a fiery foot-stomper, a bursting A-major exuberance not found in any other Beethoven symphony.
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.