The Search for Inevitability: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

The source of inspiration – or as some say, magic – has always been the great elusive question, from philosophers looking for the meaning and truth of life, literary scholars in the beauty of tragedy, or music lovers in the source of the power of great composers.

Sometimes the hunt for that magic in music is as much literal as metaphorical. The study “Harmonic Rhythm in Beethoven Symphonies” in the 1957 The Music Review, reprinted in the University of California’s Journal of Musicology in 2001, is one such example.

“One is repeatedly confused by Beethoven’s seeming lack of pre-eminence in the various component parts of music. Always excepting certain unforgettable moments, he is not equal to Mozart in melody, to Schubert in harmonic genius, to Bach in counterpoint… One may fairly conclude that Beethoven’s forte lies rather in the combination of all musical elements, and that sense of inevitability results from the perfection of adjustment among the elements.”

It is that spirit of musical crossword creation that we hear in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Though hardly groundbreaking in the choice of scales and in interplays between the strings and the brass, Beethoven’s abilities as a compositional chemist come into play, producing a majesty of design surpassing in breadth, if not depth, his Fifth Symphony.

From the very start of the first movement, Beethoven sets the massive scale of the Seventh Symphony, both in his depiction of triumph as well as the number of musical layers it displays. And yet within this interweaving of anticipatory scales and majestic brass announcements throughout  this movement lie clues to folk elements and repeating patterns or ostionatos which would be heard again in the close of the symphony. One such moment is reminiscent of the oboe solo in the fifth symphony, when, towards the end of the movement, Beethoven pens a surprising moment of calm clarinets accompanied by a unison pizzicato instead of the expected reiteration of the massive theme of the movement. It has also been suggested that the tune of Grossvatertanz or Grandfather-dance of the century before form a melodic root to both this movement as well as the fifth piano concerto.

A solemn minor chord starts second movement, quickly changing the air of hopeful brilliance left by the preceding Allegro, yet with no less grandeur. With its dark melodic beauty, the movement is in ways be paralleled in the slow movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, together with yearning cello solos, rhythmic heartbeats and the light haunting push of plucked strings.

While it has been accepted that ideas for the second movement were noted by Beethoven some years in advance, the better told tale of the audience insisting on the encore of the movement may have been more myth than fact.

The third movement employs some light relief to the symphony, with the light bounce of the strings meeting the bright horn calls, and the calmest moments of the opus circling back to the dance of the strings.

The final movement of the Seventh Symphony, proceeding attaca from the third, once again link to Celtic folk elements. The opening theme is taken from the coda of Nora Creina, becoming, as James Travis noted, “by its humor and vigor, a veribtable apotheosis of the Irish reel”. While it holds much of the character of the opening movement, the sense of step would then expect no less than in character and style for the strings to take the baton from the brass as melodic flag bearers. A final ominious rumbling ostionato in the lower strings deceptively culminates in the double forte orchestral victory… as well as the victory of Beethoven in his ability to capture his muse’s moment of inevitabilty, both then and enduringly centuries later.


2 responses

14 02 2013
Jettie Harris

In your very first paragraph—-do you mean to say “magic”—-or do you mean to say “music”? Very confusing.

15 02 2013

Thanks, I’ve updated it to hopefully be slightly clearer. I really should just delete the first paragraph but I just like the idea.

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