Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 in A Major, op. 92, isn’t just one of Beethoven’s personal greatest works. It’s one of the greatest works of music ever composed, and its stature is such that it even rises beyond the history of music and into the history of art. Beethoven’s Seventh is in the same rarefied air as Michelengelo’s Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the Tale of Genji, the terra cotta warriors of China, Hamlet, and…you get the idea. When we engage with the Seventh Symphony, we’re engaging with one of the great works of human art.
But for today, let’s set aside the superlatives. I’m not really the best person to talk about the how and why of what makes this symphony so great, beyond its near perfection in its proportions, its emotional sweep from the sunny optimism of the first movement to the soul-rending meditation of the second, or the way the work culminates in a movement that has been described as “the apotheosis of the dance”. Instead, let’s try to hear the Seventh as it might well have sounded to those hearing it for the first time.
Though his hearing loss was progressing inexorably in December of 1813, Beethoven was still able to perform and conduct at this point in his life, although not for very much longer. Beethoven himself led the orchestra in the very first performance of the Seventh Symphony at a charity concert for victims of the Napoleonic Wars. (The same concert would also see the premiere of Beethoven’s strange potboiler, Wellington’s Victory.) The Seventh was an acclaimed success right from the very first hearing, and it has always been a beloved work, often showing up near or at the very top of lists of Beethoven’s greatest works. For me, I for many years ranked it second, just behind the monumental Ninth Symphony–but in recent years, I have reversed that view.
Over the last few decades, trends in classical music performance have led away from the kinds of excesses that were normal in the middle of the 20th century as orchestras have reduced their sizes and striven to perform works in something resembling the kind of air and style of their times. Some have gone even farther with this, though, leading to the rise of “period instrument” ensembles. These groups perform on instruments either directly dating to the Baroque or Classical periods, or on instruments carefully made to those standards. Strings instruments with strings made of genuine materials, flutes of wood instead of brass, trumpets with no valves, and even percussion instruments with heads and mallets made the same way they would have been made in the 1700s or 1800s.
It’s not just about the instruments themselves, either. It’s in the way they are played. Vibrato in the strings is greatly reduced, percussion sounds sharper, and the woodwinds often more piercing. The conductors, too, adhere as much as they can to the standards of music when it was composed. Tempi are often faster, and interpretive flashes tend to be kept to a minimum. All of this is in an effort to present as authentic to the music’s time a performance as possible. Of course, since recordings didn’t exist, all of this hinges on our knowledge of the instruments themselves and on our knowledge of performance standards of the time, based on writings left by people in attendance back then: accounts of concerts, pedagogical materials, and so on.
The ensemble in the performance of the Seventh Symphony below is the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, founded in 1989 by conductor John Eliot Gardiner (who also conducts this performance). This recording is part of a cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, which I happen to own on compact disc someplace in the archives. Gardiner and his orchestra are among the leading performing groups in the historically-informed performance movement, and I love his Beethoven cycle a great deal. Some listeners avoid historically-informed performance (which I’ve just now, as I researched this piece, is the preferred term now for “period performance”!) because they may expect a rather clinical and unemotional, and thus unmoving, approach to the music-making.
But look! If it’s true that Gardiner and the ORR have, in fact, managed to reproduce Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in something approaching what those first audiences heard…well, how could that possibly be clinical or unmoving? The Seventh was, as I have indicated, virtually beloved from its first hearing. Beethoven knew what he was doing, after all. Great music can’t be suppressed entirely, and it certainly isn’t suppressed here. Instead, it shines.
Here is the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op 92, by Beethoven, performed by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Imagine hearing this in a concert hall in Vienna on December 8, 1813. Imagine hearing this along with musicians such as Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Antonio Salieri (who, in real life, had a long and successful career in music after the death of Mozart, whom he did not poison or manipulate into drinking himself to death as he composed a Requiem).
If I ever get my hands on Doc Brown’s Delorean, I will probably use it to travel back to the premieres of some of the great masterworks of music history, starting here.