Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Anybody who knows me, knows that Beethoven is going to be lurking around, in and through my posts and probably a lot during this challenge. My muse in all things, be it music or life, we do share an eerie number of characteristics, but have just as many differences. So, no; I am not channeling him, I just relate well to him and have a very similar temperament in what is acceptable and what is not, both in music, and in life.

Opening bars of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony

Having gotten that out of the way, let me just limn a brief description of what was going on in Beethoven's world, when his monumental Seventh Symphony was debuted, on December 8, 1813. During this period of time, parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it would later be called) were at war with Napoleon's forces and had been for several years. Vienna was tired, dispirited and her concert audiences were weary of being under his forces' occupation; the city had always possessed a sense of joie de vivre, second only to Paris, and in fact was probably a bit more fatalistic and understood that the party wouldn't last forever. Central and Eastern Europeans share that sense of fatalism with their Russian cousins and understand that in a way that Parisiéns have never been able to conceive. It gets darker the farther east you travel.

Anyway, Beethoven was one of the few people who worked on regardless of what was going on around him. After he had his temper tantrum in the funeral march of the “Eroica” Symphony, he went on to compose bigger and more complex symphonies, as he expanded upon his musical ideas. His pursuit and belief in the purity of his art is unparalleled and his relentless passion in that pursuit continued throughout his life, no matter what was going on around him. He was forever seeking an ideal, and although through his prose, it seems he may not have felt that he reached anything of the sort, anyone who listens to his music and is a true musician, understands what he was trying to reach, and in so many cases, achieved.

The very fact that Beethoven did much of his work under duress is not remarkable; many composers wrote and conceived brilliant music under some horrifying circumstances. One of these, Dmitry Shostakovich, was in Leningrad, during the siege of the city by the Nazis for 900 days. He was a volunteer fireman. Shostakovich managed to compose his Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies during and in between the shelling, starving and the typhoid outbreaks.

Beethoven's Viola - Bonn Haus, Germany

Beethoven also harbored another trait that is found in Shostakovich; a decency towards and belief in his fellow man. Ludwig could be one prickly cactus (he once called a town official a "donkey's ass", while Ludwig was in his cups), but inherently, down deep, he had a true belief that all men were equal and this is reflected in his music; never so much as in “Fidelio” and his Ninth Symphony, with the iconic “Ode to Joy”.

What does all of this blather have to do with the 2nd movement of his Seventh Symphony; the “Allegretto”? Well, now we're coming up on the more enigmatic part of this post. This particular “Allegretto” is often played as a stand-alone piece and for some reason seems to be subject to “added” features, as if the brilliant music of Beethoven's Allegretto were not enough.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony2nd movement

Part of this is because there is no real “meaning” itself ever ascribed by Beethoven to this particular symphony, people have felt the need to make things up. Certainly, this is not the case of the “Eroica”, which was initially to have been a paean to Napoleon Bonaparte himself, but this idea was hastily abandoned and with rage, when Napoleon went on the warpath. Thus, the idea of the “Heroic” Symphony was born. The same can be said for the Sixth; the “Pastorale” Symphony, with it's suggestions of fauns prancing and playing pan-flutes, or some nonsense, until the thunder storm sends them scurrying.

This is Disney's idea of what the "Pastoral" Symphony should look like. Not sure that I'm on the same page with this nightmare, here.

No such theme or idea can be ascribed to the Seventh Symphony and in particular, the “Allegretto” has remained, er, fair game for any manner of interpretations and some rather ill-conceived and poorly-executed ideas.

If this picture is anything to go by, I'd have been ready to rest awhile and hear me some Beethoven's "Allegretto" from his Seventh Symphony.

The Seventh Symphony was debuted on December 8, 1813, to benefit the wounded soldiers of several months earlier, in the battle of Hanau. This was one of Beethoven's most successful concerts and Viennese audiences, sick with the malaise of siege, war and deprivation, embraced the symphony's energy and beauty. During the following months, the 2nd movement was played repeatedly, both as a stand-alone and as part of the rest of the Seventh Symphony. The Symphony itself enjoyed a popularity with the public that was unparalleled at the time, although there were critics – when are there not? One referred to the whole as “something sounding like badly-oiled syringes”. I'm guessing one would have to have heard that to make any comparison whatsoever.

I have never seen this movie, as much as I like Sean Connery. Something off-putting about a guy in a pigtail running around in his underpants throughout the entire thing, methinks.

But, the second movement itself, the “Allegretto” is STILL often played apart from the rest of the symphony and has graced everything from mediocre sci-fi movies, like “Zardoz”, with Sean Connery in his underwear, to horrible displays of interpretative dance choreographed by the ladies' Church Guild of my old home town, church, St. Paul's Catholic Church. It has been referred to as the “dance symphony”, but this does not give people license to dress up in filmy gowns, flit about the narthex and behave like wilting gladiolas – it's a buzzkill in my book. I guess it's like trying to gussy up a pig with lipstick, or throw glitter on a cat turd; it will not work, no matter the excellence of the diversion.

The problem with interprative dance is the "interprative" part. Is this a crucifixion, or are the participants offering hosannas to that kid up there near the cross? Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure this is the part where I leave. God only knows what Beethoven would have made of the "wilting gladiolas" of his "Allegretto".

Even Beethoven himself abhorred critics and other composers and musicians trying to attach “meaning” or in today's parlance, a particular “label” to a piece of his music. I for one, feel that is how it should be. Purity of sound and structure on this level exists because it must and is there for the simple enjoyment of listening to. In a way, it is like having a wild and magnificent tiger come and sit by your side. You are graced by the presence of such music. I can find no other words to define how or what I really feel about the “Allegretto” movement of the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven. I just know beauty and the purity of the music and the spirit of it, when I hear it.

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