Toronto-based Tafelmusik is one of the world’s leading period performance ensembles, renowned internationally for its distinct, exhilarating, and soulful performances. Founded in 1979 by Kenneth [...]
They spoke about it
Following their recording of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (winner of the JUNO for “Classical Album Of the Year: Large Ensemble”), Tafelmusik Orchestra directed by Maestro Bruno Weil presents Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Bruno Weil’s renown as one of the leading conductors of Viennese classical music has been established through guest appearances with major international orchestras and numerous recordings.
Seventh and Eighth Symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) were completed in close succession during the spring and summer of 1812. Like fraternal twins, the two works have outwardly different characters – drama and comedy, respectively – but the proximity of their conception is revealed in many technical details and procedures.
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
The premiere of the Seventh Symphony, on December 8, 1813, was part of a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic wars. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, Court Mechanician to the Hapsburgs, organized the event. The man now remembered for perfecting and patenting the metronome persuaded Beethoven to write a patriotic piece for his newest mechanical instrument, the “Panharmonicum.” The result was Wellington’s Victory, fully orchestrated with cannons, martial music, and quotations from national themes like God Save the Queen. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and a demonstration of Maelzel’s mechanical trumpet rounded out the programme. Beethoven led an orchestra comprised of Vienna’s most esteemed musicians, including the violinists Schuppanzigh and Spohr, the bassist Dragonetti, and the composer Meyerbeer playing bass drum. Hummel and the aged Salieri assisted by directing the cannon fire!
The concert was a great success, inspiring applause “to the point of ecstasy,” and was repeated twice during the coming weeks. The Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony was encored at each performance, and soon appeared in print in all kinds of arrangements. Having fallen out with Maelzel over money, Beethoven planned the next Akademie for his sole benefit on February 27, 1814. The programme again included the Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory, but also offered the Eighth for the first time. The newer work was not received with the same enthusiasm as the Seventh, but Beethoven commented to Czerny that this was because the Eighth was “much better.”
Among many attempts to attach symbolic and programmatic meaning to the Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Wagner’s description of it as “the Apotheosis of the Dance” is often cited. Actual dance music it is not, but rhythm is the essence of its character, serving as a unifying element within each movement and the driving force for the entire work.
Beginning with a broad introduction of unprecedented length, Beethoven seems to be testing the musical raw materials for the coming movements. Grandiose rising scales suggest architectural framing. Unusual key relationships, notably with the remote keys of F Major and C Major, are foreshadowed here. The interval of the descending half step, germane to the entire symphony, is outlined in the chromatically descending bass line, particularly between F and E. Throughout the symphony, E is prominent in melodies as well as bass notes, and near the end of this introduction it becomes an obsession, passed back and forth without harmony between woodwinds and violins. Finally, it is ignited by the dancing, dotted 6/8 rhythm that propels the entire Vivace.
The Allegretto is essentially a set of variations. After a plaintive chord in the winds, the low strings begin the dirge-like theme with its insistent rhythm. The variations build in complexity, culminating in a fugato, but are twice relieved by relatively tranquil interludes in A Major. Even these episodes do not escape the inexorable rhythm in the bass.
The Presto has the expanded five-part scherzo structure (ABABA) typical of Beethoven’s middle period. The central appearance of the scherzo, marked sempre piano, creates an echo effect. The pastoral trio features the winds, with the violins creating a high drone. Far below, a persistent horn recalls and transforms the principal motive. The coda offers a brief reminiscence of the trio before the abrupt but decisive ending.
In the finale, sonata form and infectious rhythmic devices conspire for a movement of unceasing exuberance. Again, the note E takes on significance as a bass pedal point. In the gargantuan coda, after gradually descending by half steps, the basses again settle on E, alternating with D-sharp, increasing the suspense as the movement drives to its triumphant conclusion.
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
While the Seventh Symphony is expansive in form and seems to point to the future, the Eighth Symphony, Beethoven’s shortest, reverts to more classic proportions. This concise work, full of surprising contrasts, is rich in musical jokes, ranging from subtle tongue-in-cheek to Rabelaisian. Could this humor represent Beethoven’s own brusque character in conflict with the conventional world? According to Sir George Grove, “it is a portrait of the author in daily life, in his habit as he lived.”
Unlike the Seventh, the Eighth Symphony bursts forth without an introduction. The compact first theme group in F Major leads unexpectedly to the key of D Major for the second theme. After some hesitation, the theme is repeated in the traditional dominant key of C Major. A sequence of broken octaves closes the exposition and provides a linking device between various stages of the development. Bold modulations and sharply accented canonic interplay build to a level of unbearable tension. The recapitulation arrives at the rarely used level of triple forte, with the bass instruments laboring to project the theme from below. The movement ends with unexpected grace, with the same two-bar fragment that opened the movement serving as the closing cadence, a technique cultivated by Haydn.
A genial Allegretto scherzando replaces the customary slow movement. Mechanically ticking woodwinds accompany a coquettish dialogue in the strings. Although once believed to be a tribute to Maelzel’s metronome, this idea has proved to be a myth fashioned by Beethoven’s imaginative biographer Schindler. The comical ending, with its quick crescendo and formulaic cadential pattern, could be Beethoven’s parody of frivolous Italian opera.
In the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven recalls the conventions of the past, eschewing the more fashionable scherzo, but seems to mock them by burdening a graceful theme with heavy accents and rhythmic ambiguity. An apparent joke of Beethoven’s occurs near the end of the main section, when the timpanist, usually faithfully wedded to the brass, seems to get stuck two beats behind. The bucolic trio features the solo clarinet and horns, while the cellos sketch an intricate counterpoint in arpeggiated triplets.
In the Allegro vivace finale, a hybrid of sonata and rondo forms, Beethoven plays some of his crudest musical pranks, alternating with moments of surprising tenderness. Beginning quietly, the orchestra drops to the extremely soft ppp level, setting up an explosively dissonant C-sharp blast, followed by a laughing, full volume repetition of the opening theme. Not until the extended coda does the C-sharp succeed, after insistent repetitions, in causing a wild detour to the remote key of F-sharp Minor. Then the brass and timpani enter decisively, hammering out F-naturals, guiding all to the home key.
© Allen Whear 2008