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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphonies Nos 2 & 7

National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
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Label: National Symphony Orchestra
Recording details: Various dates
Concert Hall at John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, USA
Produced by Blanton Alspaugh
Engineered by Mark Donahue
Release date: December 2023
Total duration: 71 minutes 6 seconds

Cover artwork: Beethoven Symphonies Abstracted Art by Mo Willems (b1968)

Beethoven's muscular second symphony, completed early in 1802, is coupled with No 7 of a decade later, the finale of which was famously described by Wagner as representing ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. Performances are everything we have come to expect from these forces.

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Symphony No 2 in D major Op 36 (1801/2)
Beethoven’s so-called 'heroic' style, which we see in full bloom in the Third Symphony ('Eroica'), was not born overnight. Almost every one of Beethoven’s early works has something in it that anticipates the explosion of the 'Eroica' and the compositions that followed it.

In his First Symphony (1799-1800), Beethoven basically followed the outlines of a late Haydn symphony, though signs of a new musical world taking shape were numerous. In the Second Symphony, the occasional echoes of Haydn and Mozart are of secondary importance as an entirely new symphonic style is unfolding before our ears.

Soon after the first fortissimo D that begins the symphony’s opening Adagio molto, it becomes clear that we are listening to no ordinary symphonic introduction. The first great change is in the orchestration: the opening melody of the Adagio is given to the woodwinds while the strings are silent—it is the first indication that the winds will have much more to do in this symphony than merely doubling the strings and taking a solo or two. When the woodwind melody is repeated and expanded by the strings, we know that the equal balance between these orchestral sections was a primary concern of the composer’s.

There are other novelties. The music starts out on a series of modulations to distant tonalities; the strings scurry up and down in passages and rapid thirty-second notes into which the horns interject some strong off-beat accents. One can recognize Mozart’s 'Prague' Symphony (in the same key of D major) as a model, but Beethoven packed a far greater number of events into little more than two minutes of music.

The same intensity continues in the ensuing Allegro con brio. The first theme (its simplicity and the repeated D’s again recall the 'Prague') starts piano, but it is not long before a full orchestral forte is reached. The woodwinds and strings take turns as they play the second theme, a brilliant march suddenly interrupted by a fortissimo dissonance and, after it, a sudden silence. The same elements are elaborated upon in a varied and exciting development. The recapitulation is followed by one of Beethoven’s first grand codas, expanded almost to a second development section.

Whereas the first movement emphasized rhythmic action, the exquisite second-movement Larghetto is all melody and lyricism. The themes, again arranged in sonata form, unfold with a grace and elegance that was new in Beethoven’s music. This is a side of Beethoven’s style that found continuation in Schubert. Despite occasional turbulences, the movement preserves its serene and peaceful quality to the end.

The third movement is Beethoven’s first orchestral Scherzo that is so labeled in the score. (The corresponding movement in the First Symphony, although scherzo-like in many respects, was still called a Minuet.) In the 1790s, Beethoven had written numerous scherzos, so designated, in his piano sonatas and chamber works; but in the Second Symphony he took the concept further than he had ever done before. The humorous nature of the movement is accentuated by the reduction of the thematic material to a single measure, its three rapid quarter notes constantly played at various pitches and different dynamic levels—and always differently from what one would expect. In contrast, the Trio has a continuous melody, although again a disarmingly simple one, consisting merely of parts of an ascending and descending D major scale. Beethoven was to come back to these D major scale patterns later, fashioning the Trios of both his Seventh and Ninth Symphonies from the same material.

The finale starts with another Beethovenian joke, a two-note motif played in a high register and answered by a 'growl' an octave and a half lower. The entire movement is energized by the sparkling wit of this opening. Between the appearances of the two-note motif and its complement, there are some more expansive lyrical melodies. In the final measures of the symphony, Beethoven derives a brilliant coda from this returning motif, and a whole magnificent and powerful conclusion grows out of that humorous little phrase.

Symphony No 7 in A major Op 92 (1811/12)
I can distinctly remember the day I heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for the first time. I was five or six years old, and a recording with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony was playing on the radio. I was completely mesmerized by the performance, and when the fourth movement began, I jumped to my feet and started to dance.

About a dozen years later, I learned about Richard Wagner’s description of the symphony as the 'apotheosis of the dance', and although I wasn’t sure what an apotheosis was, I could certainly agree that dance was at the center of what this symphony was all about. Even later, I became acquainted with other attempts by 19th-century writers to capture the work’s essence, invoking political revolutions, military parades, masquerade balls, Bacchic orgies, and more. Finally, about 25 years after my first encounter with the symphony, I read Maynard Solomon’s excellent book on Beethoven, in which the author showed how all these fanciful interpretations were really variations on a single theme, that of 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'.

In other words, generations of listeners have felt that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is a wild celebration of life and freedom. While the Ninth Symphony is a fierce struggle with fate that is won only when the 'Ode to Joy' is intoned, from the start the Seventh radiates joy and happiness that not even the second movement (to some, a funeral march) can seriously compromise.

The dance feelings associated with the work find their explanation in the fact that each of the four movements is based on a single rhythmic figure that is present almost without interruption, (the third movement has two such figures, one for the Scherzo proper and one for the central Trio section). In the first movement, we may see how the predominant rhythm gradually comes to life during the transition from the lengthy slow introduction to the fast tempo.

Every rock-and-roll lover knows how intoxicating the constant repetition of simple rhythmic patterns can be. That’s part of what Beethoven did here, but he also did much more than that: against a backdrop of continually repeated dance rhythms, he created an endless diversity of melodic and harmonic events. There is a strong sense of cohesion as the melodies flow from one another with inimitable spontaneity. At the same time, harmony, melody, dynamics, and orchestration are all full of the most delightful surprises. It is somewhat like riding in a car at a constant (and rather high) speed while watching an ever-changing, beautiful landscape pass by.

The first movement starts with the most extended slow introduction Beethoven ever wrote for a symphony. It presents and develops its own thematic material, linked to the main theme of the Allegro section in a passage consisting of multiple repeats of a single note—E—in the flute, oboe, and violins. Among the many unforgettable moments of this movement, I would single out two: the surprise oboe solo at the beginning of the recapitulation (which has no counterpart in the exposition) and the irresistible, gradual crescendo at the end that culminates in a fortissimo statement of the movement’s main rhythmic figure.

The second-movement Allegretto in A minor was the section in the symphony that became the most popular from the day of the premiere (it had to be repeated even at the first performance). The main rhythmic pattern of this movement was used in Austro-German church litanies of the 18th and 19th centuries. The same pattern is so frequent in the music of Franz Schubert that it is sometimes referred to as the 'Schubert rhythm'. The Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh combines this rhythm with a melody of a rare expressive power. The rhythm persists in the bass even during the contrasting middle section in A major.

The third-movement Scherzo is the only one of the symphony’s movements where the basic rhythmic patterns are grouped in an unpredictable, asymmetrical way. The joke (which is what the word Scherzo means) lies in the fact that the listener may never know what will happen in the next moment. Only the Trio returns to regular-length periods. In another innovative move, Beethoven expands the traditional Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo structure by repeating the Trio a second time, followed by a third appearance of the Scherzo. At the end, Beethoven leads us to believe that he is going to start the Trio over yet another time. But we are about to be doubly surprised: first when the now-familiar Trio melody is suddenly transformed from major to minor; and second when, with five quick tutti strokes, the movement abruptly ends, as if cut off in the middle.

In the fourth-movement, Allegro con brio, the exuberant feelings reach their peak as one glorious theme follows another over an unchanging rhythmic pulsation. The dance reaches an almost superhuman intensity (and that, incidentally, is the meaning of the Greek word 'apotheosis', literally, 'becoming God-like'). This is a movement of which even Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the celebrated British musical essayist of the first half of the 20th century, had to admit: 'I can attempt nothing here by way of description.' Fortunately, the music speaks for itself.

Peter Laki © 2023

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