The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Thomas May

By the time Beethoven composed his Seventh Symphony in 1811-12, deafness had put an end to his virtuoso concert career (although he continued to improvise in private for friends). For nearly two decades he had lived in Vienna, surviving two occupations by the French, and had become one of the city's best-known personalities. A number of his compositions were notorious for sparking controversy, to be sure, but the Seventh presents a happy example of an indisputable masterpiece which was greeted with widespread public acclaim from its premiere.

The Seventh was heard for the first time on December 1813, when it appeared on a benefit program for Austrian and allied veterans of the wars against Napoleon. Also sharing the bill was Beethoven's even more wildly successful (though now forgotten) novelty piece, Wellington's Victory, which celebrated the routing of Napoleon's brother Joseph and his forces in Spain. Its inspiration had been the "panharmonicon," an extravagant mechanical instrument built to imitate the orchestra and created by the composer's inventor friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (who also designed the metronome and ear trumpets for Beethoven).

The initial audience for the Seventh thus likely associated its outsize exuberance with the sense of impending triumph over Napoleon's once seemingly invincible power; after years of disruptive warfare, a lasting peace was finally on the horizon. In one of music history's more remarkable ironies, the Seventh dates from near the close of what is often termed Beethoven's "heroic" period, which the Eroica Symphony-a work inevitably linked with the composer's contradictory attitudes toward Napoleon-had launched.

As Beethoven was actually composing the Seventh, however, Napoleon was at the height of his power (though his disastrous invasion of Russia would follow that summer). Some have suggested a more intimate inspiration for the intensely joyful energy that pervades so much of this score-and of the Eighth Symphony, which soon followed and is of the same vintage. The identity of the "Immortal Beloved" to whom Beethoven addressed his passionate, heartfelt declaration of love in a letter (dated only July 6 and 7) remains a matter of debate, but there are persuasive arguments for 1812 as the year of this document-which would place this confessional moment just a few months after completion of the Seventh. As with his many other emotional entanglements, Beethoven's pursuit of the Immortal Beloved would end in frustration, yet at least for a time he seems to have been encouraged by the possibility for a lasting intimacy. "There was no tint of amorous charade here," observes biographer Maynard Solomon. "Beethoven, for the first and as far as we know the only time in his life, had found a woman whom he loved and who fully reciprocated his love."

At the same time, the Seventh is one of Beethoven's most abstract, "absolute" compositions-in the sense that it is very much about the power of music itself. The dominant role played by obsessive rhythms and the determined neutrality of most of the thematic material-scalar patterns or outlines of the common chord-suggest a focus on music's primal elements, through which Beethoven builds his immense, epic architecture. The scale of the introduction to the first movement, for example, is unprecedented; at the end of it, Beethoven atomizes the sense of pulse and proceeds then to build it up again into the dynamo of the Vivace it introduces. Meanwhile, the accompanying crescendo that suddenly grows quiet as we cross over into the first movement proper is only one of the many surprises that lie in store. Beneath the dynamic thrust of the rhythm, Beethoven juxtaposes doggedly static drones deep in the bass: the grinding tension between the two is especially electrifying in the coda (in a passage that fellow composer Carl Maria von Weber famously compared to the musings of a madman).

This drone, a musical metaphor for outdoor, rustic celebration, plays an important role later in the Seventh as well, literally grounding its sense of epic festivity. Many descriptions of this music resort to images of a Dionysian experience; some of Beethoven's contemporaries even wondered whether he had been drunk while composing it. Solomon writes that the Seventh seems to tap into an archetype. Its celebratory spirit suggests "the carnival or festival, which from time immemorial has temporarily lifted the burden of perpetual subjugation to the prevailing social and natural order by periodically suspending all customary privileges, norms, and imperatives." That doesn't preclude the sense of melancholy which comes to the fore in the Allegretto-not a slow movement per se, though its tempo offers a reprieve from the speed of the surrounding movements. The variations on the main theme add new layers of orchestration, anticipating a similar strategy in the orchestral introduction of the "joy" theme in the Ninth's finale.

Along with its rhythmic profile, the Seventh is a symphony of harmonic jolts. Robert Simpson's elegant study of the Beethoven symphonies points out that the long introduction had already claimed the territory of F and C major as significant subsidiary keys for this work in A major. Keys, in an acoustically vivid sense, actually become "tonal protagonists," writes Simpson, to the point that they "seem more like dimensions than keys," thus intensifying the feeling of epic expanse. The Scherzo, for example, whisks us far afield into F major, with excursions into D for the trio, a key closer to the "home" of A. (The "drone" music also resurfaces in the trio.) Thus, Simpson notes, "only the most furious vehemence can reinstate A as the rightful tonic" for the finale.

And indeed a sequence of powerhouse chords launches the driving, sometimes terrifying fury of the finale. (Their power anticipates the beginning of the Hammerklavier Sonata.) Here Beethoven extends both the form and content of the classical symphony into uncharted territory. The coda's maelstrom once again evokes the tension between stasis and motion from the first movement, escalating it still further. Wagner's description of the Seventh as "the apotheosis of the dance" has become so well known it practically suggests an unintended program, but elsewhere in his commentary Wagner touches more closely on the music's psychological impact when he writes that its effect is one of "emancipation from all guilt, just as the aftereffect is the feeling of Paradise forfeited, with which we return to the phenomenal world."