One of the main sources of inspiration for how this program came together is this partial quote from Richard Wagner, calling Beethoven’s Symphony №7, “the Apotheosis of the Dance.” Indeed, this quote is a prime example of someone using an entirely different artform — dance — to describe the impression and meaning of a piece of music. To read Wagner’s quote in its entirety is even more powerful.
“All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.”
Why was dance the analogy that Wagner chose to use? The answer is: rhythm. The entire symphony, from the first note to the last, focuses on rhythm. He enlivens and energizes these rhythms with simple yet unforgettable harmonies. He provides further excitement by surprising us with his typically extreme dynamics. But what is typically the most important arrow in a composer’s quiver, melody (think Tchaikovsky or Dvorak), is practically non-existent.
The first movement begins with a stately and noble introduction. There is no melody at all, just very powerful chords, bursting with energy, followed by solo instruments quietly outlining those chords, which is called an arpeggio. The next element Beethoven introduces to these chords and arpeggios are simple scales heading upward, first played as softly as possible, then as loudly as possible.
What then follows is something that could certainly be called the beginnings of a melody, but Beethoven doesn’t do anything with it except repeat it four times like a broken record. The scales return, then the simple repeating melody, which quickly disintegrates into, finally, the lively Vivace, or fast section, of the movement.
The rest of the first movement uses similar tactics, with the faster, propulsive dance rhythm keeping us completely engaged. It’s a gigue, which was a popular dance from the Baroque era and still very known to the audiences of Beethoven’s day.
When listening to the first movement in its entirety, knowing that it’s the rhythm that Beethoven uses to keep our attention, it’s even more remarkable.
The second movement, the Allegretto, is an even more remarkable achievement. From the moment it was premiered, everyone recognized it was a masterpiece. In fact, at the premiere, this movement had to be played twice! In days long gone, when it was acceptable to just play singular movements from various symphonies, this second movement was often played on its own.
It begins with what many have facetiously called the most famously melody written on just one note. You don’t even need to read music to realize that there isn’t much happening.
How does Beethoven make this “the crown of modern instrumental music,” as one music critic of an early performance called it, so thoroughly beguiling and timeless? Through a persistent rhythm that never stops, this is called an ostinato by the way, simple harmonies, and surprising dynamics.
The third movement, the Scherzo, is marked Presto which means very fast. It is, in fact, the fastest scherzo that Beethoven wrote in all of his symphonies and it just flies by! For this movement and the last, he uses various forms of the contradance, which was an unrefined but very popular dance style.
The middle section of this scherzo, marked Assai meno presto (rather less fast), is a very special moment and sounds to me like time stands still. The two contrasting sections of this movement are, nevertheless, incredibly complimentary and fit hand-in-glove with one another.
The last movement, marked Allegro con brio (fast, with life), has been described more than once as Bacchanalian. Once again, no melodies to speak of, but just wonderfully electric rhythms, repeated scales, and stark dynamic contrasts. It’s just simply a frenzied dance from start to finish!