Since its founding in 1934, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal has distinguished itself as a leader in the orchestral life of Canada and Quebec. A cultural ambassador of the highest order, the [...]
They spoke about it
Beethoven’s First and Seventh Symphonies
Beethoven composed his First Symphony between 1799 and 1800. Its first performance, which he himself conducted, was a great success. But it also set, on the steeply rising career path he had already put behind him during his previous years in Vienna, the standard by which the composer’s future works would be judged. Beethoven had adopted as a model for his First Symphony the type of symphony characterized in the late works of Joseph Haydn. He seems to have done this quite deliberately and intentionally, as if he meant to make clear to the listener the level on which he wanted his music to be heard. The relationship to Haydn is easy to recognize, for example in his treatment of the winds in the cantabile passages of the second movement, but especially in the witty opening of the final movement. What distinguishes this First Symphony from a symphony of Haydn’s is the unmistakable emphasis on dynamics as part of the musical procedure and form. Beethoven directs and leads the listener precisely in the direction he wants as a composer. In so doing, he undermines musically, as it were, the conservative character of his own first definitively symphonic work. This becomes quite evident in the third movement, which though indicated as a Minuet, is no such thing at all. Instead any expectation of comfortable musical entertainment is boldly and brazenly frustrated.
What does this emphasis on dynamics mean concretely, in terms of compositional design? It means nothing other than that every moment already refers to the moment following, before it actually occurs. The most famous example of this is the first chord of the slow Introduction in the first movement: a dissonance, a seventh chord played on C, dissolves into the sub-dominant chord of F major. This process is repeated, but on another level, and leads to the dominant in G major, and only with the entry of the main theme does it arrive at the C major tonality. Everything is focused on this forward motion, as it progresses. And this “progress” which Beethoven, in his own words, saw as the “purpose” of the “world of Art” and “the whole of Creation,” is what marks the First Symphony with the stamp of true originality. And although in the last movement a certain playful cheerfulness and joy appear and are sustained throughout, as in a Haydnesque grand finale, there is a deep, inscrutable irony at work. For into his finale Beethoven introduces a theme derived from Rudolph Kreutzer, which in turn is taken from the official state festival repertoire of the French Revolution.
More than ten years later, in 1811 and 1812, Beethoven wrote his Seventh Symphony, at a time when Europe was enduring the stranglehold of Napoleon at the height of his power. Yet already the forces of change and liberation from this modern type of absolute ruler were being felt – changes which, arising from below, promised freedom and equality on a rational, humanitarian basis, together with a new social order and freedom from the old shackles in which the world had long suffered. In his Seventh Symphony Beethoven anticipated, as it were, this liberation of humankind. He composed a grand image of the “man of the future”, a future beyond war and need, coercion and oppression. No one has sensed this more intensely and perceptively than Richard Wagner, who wrote in his major essay of 1849, The Art-Work of the Future: “All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart become here the blissful insolence of joy … This symphony is the Apotheosis of Dance itself; it is Dance in its highest aspect, as if it were the loftiest Deed of bodily motion incorporated in an ideal mould of tone”.
Wagner’s interpretation has persisted, and indeed remains convincing, to this day. For in this symphony, in fact, the theme of Joy in conjunction with that of Dance and dance rhythms arising from physical impulses consistently predominates and characterizes all sections of the work. Specific patterns of movement based on elemental rhythmic motifs characterize each of the four movements and underscore the impression that not only dances but dramatic scenes are being presented and enacted, in which people indulge in dance-like play, freedom of movement, rapture and sorrow in the expression of dance, and simultaneously offer up a hymn to freedom in life. It is understandable, then, that Beethoven avoids those demarcations and contrasts from which formal contours ordinarily emerge, and that in this sense the thematic subject in the first movement has no real profile of its own but grows organically out of the rhythm and dynamics of the main theme. The second movement, an Allegretto, is of another kind altogether, and has repeatedly given rise to different interpretations. The ostinato rhythm of the long-short-short metrical figure induces a kind of trance state, on one hand, and on the other evokes reminiscences of a funeral cortège. It seems indeed to have affected its first listeners so intensely that in Vienna, in 1814, the orchestra was obliged by the audience to repeat the movement twice. Scarcely less idiosyncratically moving is the third movement, a scherzo enclosing a trio of peculiar solemnity. And last of all, the Finale, an explosive discharge of will, expression and energy, as well as feelings of joy and triumph. Almost inevitably, the turbulence of the musical imagery reflects the entire panorama of the war of liberation against Napoleon and the joyful celebrations that followed.