Beethoven Symphony Basics at ESM
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1812)
Composition dates: 1811-12.
Instrumentation: Strings, 2 Fl, 2 Ob, 2 Cl, 2 Bsn, 2 Hn, 2 Tr, Timp.
First performance: 8 Dec. 1813, Akademie at University Concert Hall, Vienna.
Orchestra size for first or early performance: 13+184.108.40.206/single winds (estimated, based on Beethoven letter).
Autograph Score: Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Kraków. Biblioteka Jagiellońska website.
First published parts: Dec. 1816, S. A. Steiner & Co., Vienna.
First published score: Dec. 1816, S. A. Steiner & Co., Vienna. SJSU Link.
Movements (Tempos. Key. Form.)
I. Poco sostenuto (C, MM=69)—Vivace (6/8, MM=104). A Major. Sonata-Allegro (w/ slow intro.).
II. Allegretto (MM=76). A Minor (i). Ostinato variation (developing, passacaglia) with fugato.
III. Scherzo (Presto, MM=132)/Trio (Assai meno presto, MM=84). F Major (VI). Scherzo/Trio (ternary extended)
IV. Finale. Allegro con brio (2/4, MM=72). A Major. Sonata-Allegro, with hints of Rondo.
Significance and Structure
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 was composed in 1811-12, more than three years after the premiere of the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies. Although Beethoven did not compose any symphony during the intervening years, he remained productive in other genres, especially keyboard and chamber music, and produced some of his most important works, including the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, the “Lebewohl” (Farewell) Piano Sonata, and the “Archduke” Piano Trio. The vacancy of symphonic work did not imply that Beethoven was no longer interested in being publicly recognized as a symphonic composer (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 146). In 1809, he noted some short ideas marked “Sinfonia” in his sketchbooks, though some of them were not used in the later symphonies. Beethoven finally started working on the A major Symphony in earnest in the fall of 1811 in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, where he had travelled to improve his health, and completed it in April 1812.
The Seventh Symphony was premiered in the great hall of the University in Vienna on December 8, 1813, as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. This concert was probably the most successful in Beethoven’s lifetime. The program also included the first performance of the “Battle Symphony” Wellington’s Victory, an anti-Napoleon patriotic showpiece which celebrated the British victory over the French at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain (Steinberg, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, 38-43). Unlike some of Beethoven’s other symphonies such as the Third and the Fifth, which we now regard as great works but were initially resisted to some degree by the composer’s contemporaries, the Viennese audience immediately embraced the Seventh Symphony, and considered it among their favorite orchestral works. Its huge popularity led to three performances in the ten weeks following its premiere. The second movement—Allegretto—was particularly loved, leading to outbreaks of applause before the third movement during a number of early performances. The Allegretto remained widely popular throughout the nineteenth century, and even today is often performed separately. According to a reviewer three years after the first performance, “the second movement…which since its first performance in Vienna has been a favorite of all connoisseurs…is still demanded to be repeated at every performance.” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 159.) Not only did the audience enjoy the “rustic simplicity” of the work, the artistic value of the Seventh Symphony was also well-received by critics and composers such as Hector Berlioz who considered it “a masterpiece – alike of technical ability, taste, fantasy, knowledge, and inspiration.” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 166.)
What has made the Seventh Symphony exceptional in the minds of critics since its earliest performances is its rhythmic vitality and momentum. Richard Wagner exalted the lively rhythm with this often-quoted poetic description:
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.
As Lockwood says, the rhythmic events are so strong that they sometimes overshadow other musical elements. (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 151.) But this rhythmic vitality is one characteristic of a larger factor that may account for the Seventh Symphony’s appeal to audiences who may have no training in music: its rusticity suggesting folk music. Lockwood goes on to say that Beethoven’s 6/8 theme in A major in the first movement reminded the listeners of Scottish and Irish folk songs. (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 166-167.) Colorful orchestration that favors woodwind solos and horn calls, particularly in the first and last movements, also serves the rustic character. This more Romantic orchestration is a long way from the criticism “too much of Harmoniemusik” leveled at the “classical” First Symphony. (See Symphony No. 1 “Others’ Words” essay.)
The rhythmic vitality and simple rustic character cover an unusual choice of key layout for the movements. Rather than using a relative minor key or keys that are related by a fourth or fifth, Beethoven chose to exploit keys separated by a third, particularly between the inner movements. The second movement is in A Minor and the third movement is in F Major, with the trio in D Major. These third-related keys, and the rustic character supplied by woodwinds, are foreshadowed in the slow introduction of the first movement. The key of A Major is the first chord of the symphony, but the opening moves throughout various keys, such as C Major, led by the oboes, and F Major, led by the flutes, until orchestral arrival on the dominant E Major. The home key of A Major is not clear until the fifth measure of the Vivace section (3:33-3:59), with the flutes introducing the principal melody.
[We refer the reader to the following recording for the ensuing discussion: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conducting, Beethoven: Symphony No. 7.]
The first movement opens with the longest introduction (0:03-3:50) of any of Beethoven’s symphonies. As in earlier opening-movement slow introductions, Beethoven brilliantly outlined important key areas, and highlighted scalar and chromatic motives found throughout the rest of the first movement. The harmonic movement of the introduction mirrors fundamental key areas in each of the four movements, specifically: A major (first and last movement)—D major (trio of the third movement)—C major (second movement, B theme)—F major (third movement)—E major (beginning of the fourth movement). Following the introduction, the first movement Vivace moves forward with an unrelenting rhythmic motive (3:50-3:55):
Rarely does this rhythmic figure cease, only doing so in order to create moments of great anticipation. These characteristic Beethovenian moments of dramatic, blaring silences give way to major changes in the music, such as signaling structural changes in moving to the development section (8:23-10:32) and the coda (12:51-14:19), where rising chromatic figures suddenly stop before falling into the next section (8:23-8:34, 12:51-12:57). Chromaticism is the third defining feature of the first movement. As with the use of silences, ascending and descending chromatic lines, often in the bass, lead towards and away from the different sections and key areas. Beethoven perfectly bookends the sonata form of the first movement with its introduction and coda, balanced at exactly 62 measures each. The exposition and recapitulation, being 114 and 115 measures respectively, also balance around a lengthier developmental center of 97 measures.
The second movement—Allegretto (14:43-24:08)—pulls back the frantic rush of the first movement into a melancholy march with a dramatic shift to the parallel key of A minor. The movement has been a favorite since its premiere in 1813, with early audiences often demanding encores before continuing on to the remaining movements. Its appeal could possibly be due to Beethoven’s ingenuity in combining simple melodic lines, a consistent rhythmic motive, and unexpected harmonies, to draw the listeners into an aural journey of their own imagination. The movement’s structure can be seen as a modified rondo or a hybrid between a theme and variations and a ternary form, with the outer sections carrying the theme and its variations, and the middle section providing a countering wistful themes in A major (18:19-19:38). Not content with only creating simple variations on the theme, Beethoven further developed the theme by turning it into a fugue. Like the first movement, the second movement features a rhythmic motive that is consistent throughout (14:48-15:41):
This rhythm ties the two harmonically and melodically disparate sections together with its steady, plodding pace. Also related to the first movement, Beethoven used ascending and descending chromatic lines, but here in the melody of the theme and variation, as heard here (15:43-16:33) played by the cellos and violas. After repeating the primary and secondary sections twice, the movement is brought to a close by returning to the main theme while gradually thinning out the orchestration and breaking apart the rhythmic motif, not unlike the end of the Marcia funebre movement of the Eroica Symphony. The movement ends the way it began: a fading A-minor chord in winds with an abundance of the pitch e (23:57-24:08).
The e of the last chord of the Allegretto movement moves up to an F-major chord to begin the third-movement Scherzo (24:30-33:52), the longest of any symphonic scherzo Beethoven had yet composed (the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony would eclipse it). While traditional key relationships in major symphonies focused on the dominant and subdominant relationships, Beethoven frequently preferred to explore third-related keys. The abundance of e in the last a-minor chord of the previous movement effectively serving as the leading tone moving up to the f major chord of the third movement neatly accommodates this mediant-key relationship. In the most general terms, the Scherzo alternates between a frolicking Presto (24:30-26:57) and the more relaxed yet majestic Trio (26:57-29:22) marked Assai meno presto (“very much less quick”). The faster sections have all of the trademarks of a scherzo—a fast tempo, irregular phrase lengths, and misplaced accents. There are two main melodic elements of the opening: an ascending third, stated first in unison by the strings and woodwinds and later passed around in dialogue, and descending scalar patterns, perhaps reminiscent of the scalar passages prevalent in the slow introduction of movement one. Beethoven expanded the global form of the traditional scherzo by repeating the Trio, creating an extended ternary form of ABABA, as in his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. One of the most humorous gestures of this movement is Beethoven’s use of a repeated two-note descending gesture (29:46-30:02). The motive is stated by different parts of the orchestra, creating a trance-like effect that is broken up by a fortissimo outburst. In the second repetition of the Scherzo, the outbursts are supplanted by soft arrivals, making their return in the final repetition ever-more satisfying. Many believe that the Trio borrows material from an Austrian folk tune, which supports the symphony’s folksy character. It opens in D Major with horns, clarinets, and bassoons (Harmonie) playing a simple theme over an insistent dominant pedal tone (30:43-31:22). Energy builds gradually as the orchestration and dynamics grow until the entrance of the timpani announces the climax. As mentioned above, the Trio is repeated in full and, in one last humorous touch, Beethoven begins it a third time at the end of the movement, only to rapidly squelch it with a loud cadential explosion (33:35-33:52).
Reversing the move from the second to the third movement, the F-major ending of the Scherzo falls back to e-heavy stentorian sonorities as the dominant of the return to A major, punctuated by full measures of silence, open the finale movement (34:08-end). This creates a sublime effect and signals that this movement will offer no repose from the driving rhythmic intensity of the earlier movements. Several commentators on the fourth movement have rightfully characterized it as “bacchanalian.” Its driving rhythmic energy almost compels listeners to rise to their feet, recalling Richard Wagner’s quote that this symphony was “the apotheosis of the dance.” Indeed, this movement is a lively contredanse. The first theme is driven forward by sforzandi on the second beat of each measure until the stymied resolution to tonic is achieved in measure twelve. The movement continues in a sonata-rondo form, momentum building with each return of the refrain. Driving dotted rhythms (35:01-35:18) give way to the second theme, which unfolds not in the dominant but in C-sharp minor, another mediant-key relationship. The development section travels even further afield from the home key, visiting C major and F major (both present in the slow introduction of the first movement) and finally to the extremely distant B-flat major, before the recapitulation firmly returns in the tonic key. As in previous symphonies, the coda serves as another opportunity for development by exploring various key areas. A very long dominant pedal emerges (40:10-40:19), growing to a marking of fff, the first marking of its kind in Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre. Retrospectively, the finale is relentless exercise in exuberant energy and forward momentum.
—Contributors: CH, FJ, JM, YLiu, MER
“At my last concert in the large Redoutensaal there were 18 first violins, 18 second, 14 violas, 12 violoncellos, 7 contra-basses, and 2 contra-bassoons.” Beethoven memorandum regarding the 27 December 1814 Akademie at the Redoutensaal, noted by Schindler to have been among Beethoven’s possessions. The Akademie included, along with the performance of Symphony No. 7, the first performance of Symphony No. 8, and Wellington’s Victory, and is reported to have had 3000-5000 in attendance. (Thayer, Life of Beethoven, 576.)
The premiere concert of the Seventh Symphony in 1812 was a huge success. After the 1808 premiere of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Beethoven ceased composing symphonic works for a few years, spending the time composing in other genres and reconsidering the symphonic genre. Symphonic work was still Beethoven’s “strongest ambition” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 148), and this long pause gave Beethoven a good opportunity to continue to stretch the dramatic possibilities of the genre. His sketchbooks from this period show an abundance of ideas for symphonic works, and although not all of them resulted in complete works, they show that Beethoven continued exploring this genre.
After this dormancy, and with Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Vitoria fresh in the minds of the Viennese, Beethoven started to compose the Seventh Symphony. The long period of thoughtful study and planning Beethoven undertook for the new symphony bore marvelous fruit. Its energetic character and magnificent orchestral sonorities prompted a vibrant reaction from the audience of the first performance, and even more from the exceptionally large audience described by Beethoven in the above quote. Beethoven himself was very satisfied with this newly composed work, calling it his “most excellent symphony.” (Schwarm, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, 1.). One music critic said this symphony “is the richest melodically and the most pleasing and comprehensible of all Beethoven symphonies.” (Schwarm, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, 1.)
The Großer Redoutensaal where the concert took place was located within the Hofburg palace, home to the Hapsburg dynasty, in the heart of Vienna. At the time of this concert in 1814, the Redoutensaal was the largest concert hall in Vienna. (Harrer, Musical Venues in Vienna, Seventeenth Century to the Present, 84.) Beethoven was struggling financially during these years; the Austrian currency had been devalued as a result of the war, and Beethoven was receiving less from his patrons than had been promised to him. With the popularity of the Seventh Symphony already ensured because of its first performance, Beethoven would have appreciated the possibility of additional ticket sales and increased patronage the such a large hall offered. Furthermore, the size of the Redoutensaal well-accommodated the inordinately large orchestra Beethoven described, which surely would have given the audience a uniquely overwhelming experience.
Early performances of Beethoven’s first six symphonies used a string section one typically now associates with performances of works by Mozart and Haydn, with 6-8 first violins, 6-8 second violins, 3-4 violas, 2-4 cellos, and 2-5 basses. (Ruhling, The Classical Orchestra, 12.) Beethoven’s own memorandum on the 1814 concert relates that for this performance of the Seventh Symphony the string section was heavily expanded, and the mention of two contrabassoons suggests that not only were the winds doubled in tutti sections for such a large string contingent, but that their listing along with only the strings probably means the contrabassoons were used to reinforce the double bass parts. (Ruhling, The Classical Orchestra, 14.) The use of such a large string section may have been a result of the instrumentation required by Wellington’s Victory, which called for extra wind and brass instruments including six trumpets, four horns, and a large percussion battery, even muskets and artillery. This expanded orchestra would have given profound life to the colorful instrumentation and vibrant rhythms of the Seventh Symphony as well, and may have influenced Beethoven and other composers to explore even further the dramatic potential of the orchestral ensemble, leading towards what would later be considered a Romantic aesthetic. Consider the implications a string section of this size and the possibility of double winds would have from the very first bar of the symphony, with forceful tutti downbeats juxtaposed with a solitary oboe line, or with the arrival of the first theme in the full, tutti orchestra, after being presented by a single flute in a piano dynamic. The overwhelming jubilation and raucous character of the contredanse in the fourth movement would have only been increased by such a large orchestra, not to mention the mountainous fff at the end of the fourth movement. As a whole the symphony is full of moments of powerful tutti exclamations followed by soft solo sections, or even silences. This insertion of silence is even more striking on the 1814 audience when considering the effect in a hall the size of the Großer Redoutensaal itself, with a decay estimated at of 1.4 seconds. (Harrer, Musical Venues in Vienna, Seventeenth Century to the Present, 84.)
Discussion of Beethoven’s symphonies often focus on his communication of the sublime along with universal topoi relating back to humanity. This is sometimes lost in commentaries of the Seventh Symphony, which tend to focus on its omnipresent rhythmic character. This quote, however, brings our focus back on Beethoven’s use of the orchestra, and reminds us of his continual reconsideration of the endless dramatic possibilities of symphonic music, particularly pushing it towards monumentality.
—Contributors: EH, WZ, MER
“The new symphony [No. 7 in A] was received with so much applause again. The reception was as animated as the first time; the Andante [second movement Allegretto] the crown of modern instrumental music, as at the first performance had to be repeated.” Reviewer of AMZ regarding the Seventh Symphonies second performance on February 27, 1814, on a concert with the Eighth Symphony and Wellington’s Victory. (Thayer, Life of Beethoven, 575.)
Beethoven completed the Seventh Symphony in 1812, after more than three years had passed since his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were published in 1808. The above quote by a reviewer of the 1814 performance suggests that the symphony continued to astound audiences well after its first performance in 1812. The material such as scales, and melodies that outline common chords, described by some critics as having a “rustic simplicity,” must have been part of its noteworthy appeal. Additionally, the brilliant orchestration that favored woodwind colors, particularly the first-movement flute and oboe solos, and high horn calls of the first and last movements, further conveyed the rustic character. Berlioz notes this, stating, “I have heard this theme [the principal theme of the first movement] ridiculed for its rustic simplicity. Had the composer written in large letters at the head of this Allegro the words Dance of peasants, as he has done for the Pastoral symphony, the charge that it lacks nobility would probably not have been made.”
Lewis Lockwood speculates that some of the rhythmic and melodic aspects of this symphony related to Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk-song traditions, themselves considered “rustic” by the Viennese. (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 166-67.) For example, the A major principal theme of the first movement emphasizes downbeats of the first two measures using grace-notes, and the fourth bar begins with a “Scotch snap,“ reminding listeners of the melodic style of Scottish and Irish folk songs. Another example is in the finale, as Lockwood points out: “A connection between the Seventh Symphony and his folk-song setting is not just a matter of metrical identity, but is also shown by a direct melodic correspondence between the postlude to one of his Irish songs [“Save me from the grave and wise,” WoO 154/8] and the main theme of the finale of the Seventh.” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 167.)
The finale opens with two roaring gestures with each followed by a full measure of silence, making clear that there will be no slackening that the driving rhythms that have directed the work so far. As Lockwood wrote, “Tovey called this movement ‘a triumph of Bacchic fury,’” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 165), and this finale overwhelms the audience with never-ending forward momentum as much as any Beethoven had written to date. Just as Berlioz said, “Beethoven did not write music for the eyes. The coda, launched by this threatening pedal, has extraordinary brilliance, and is fully worthy of bringing this work to its conclusion – a masterpiece of technical skill, taste, imagination, craftsmanship and inspiration.”
The second movement received special attention when it premiered and became an audience favorite quickly. It was so popular that a Leipzig critic, who attributed the lack of enthusiasm from the audience for the Eighth Symphony to the lingering admiration for the Seventh Symphony performed right before, called the second movement the “crown of modern instrumental music.” (Thayer, Life of Beethoven, 575.) What made it the crown of modern instrumental music? The first ten measures of this movement have few melodic or harmonic elements, with only a few notes repeated throughout, and no notable harmonic progression nor contrapuntal elements. The familiar long-short-short-long-long rhythm (see above essay “Significance and Structure”) that carries the almost divine selection of notes is one of the features that generated a strong, stirring effect that perhaps reminded the audience of the powerful Funeral March in the Eroica. Lockwood speculates that Beethoven was well aware of the dramatic effects a slow march tempo might have on audiences, having composed marches for the Austrian army between 1809 and 1816. (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 161.) Given that the Viennese audience had been familiar with military marches from decades of war, it was perhaps inevitable that the second movement was received with such enthusiasm. But it continued to draw attention well after the immediate pain of the Napoleonic wars were forgotten. Leonard Bernstein, in an interview given by Maximillian Schell, commented: “[in the opening of the 2nd movement of the Seventh Symphony] there is no aspect of Beethoven in which you could say that Beethoven is great as a melodist, harmonist, contrapuntist, or tone painter. . . .” Bernstein goes on to say that Beethoven showed ingenuity in constructing the form, always choosing the right note to succeed every other note as though “he had some private telephone wire to heaven which told him what the next note had to be.” The right note? Consider the viola’s note e that sits on the repetitive rhythmic pattern in the opening and the subsequent development. In the final analysis it is perhaps this one note that is the seed that grew into the captivating music which the Leipzig critic labelled “the crown of modern instrumental music.”
—Contributors: MCho, YS, MER
Topics and readings for further inquiry
The Redoutensaal and Other Performance Venues in Vienna
Harer, Ingeborg. “Musical Venues in Vienna, Seventeenth Century to the Present.” Performance Practice Review 8, No. 1 (1995), accessed July 30, 2020.
A brief but thorough review of performance venues in Vienna and their use throughout the seventeenth century to present day.
Beethoven as a Concert Organizer
“Beethoven as a Concert Organizer.” Beethoven-Haus Bonn, accessed 07/30/2020.
A brief discussion of Beethoven’s public concerts organized by Beethoven in Vienna.
Beethoven and Orchestration
Botstein, Leon. “Sound and Structure in Beethoven’s Orchestral Music.” In Glenn Stanley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Available online through CambridgeCore.
Early Editions of Score and Parts
Modern Edition of the Score
New York Philharmonic score with annotations from Leonard Bernstein.
Orchestra of the 18th Century, Brüggen
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
Complete Set of Beethoven Symphonies by Orchestra of the 18th Century and Brüggen
Important Recordings by Modern Orchestras—
Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (1921)
One of the first, if not the first, recording of the Seventh Symphony (link).
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Includes two video performances by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with or without commentary by conductor Iván Fischer.
Descriptions available online (videos, program notes, etc.,)
Bernstein & Vienna Philharmonic commentary.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Includes two video performances by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with or without commentary by conductor Iván Fischer. Additional program notes here.
Steven Ledbetter, Aspen Music Festival Program Notes
Quotes memoir of Beethoven’s conducting during its rehearsal.
Christopher Gibbs, NPR: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Includes interview with conductor Christoph Eschenbach.
Michael Steinberg, San Francisco Symphony Program Notes
Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
Ken Meltzer, Atlanta Symphony Program Notes
Interview with Leonard Bernstein.
Discussion with Maximillian Schell on the second movement with demonstration at the piano.
Sean Rice and Alexander Shelley, National Arts Centre: Exploring Beethoven Symphonies No. 7, 8 and 9