Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8

While Beethoven's life was in an emotionally downward spiral, 1813-1814 saw him see his greatest popularity, due to some patriotic music.

The piece is entitled Wellington's Victory. In the work, you can hear the British troops marching to a drum cadence and patriotic music. Then, the French army follows suit. What follows is a lot of booming and banging which is supposed to represent the cannon and gunfire.

What made this such a hip piece was that Wellington beat the French in Spanish Victoria, and the French, under Napoleon, had been a bit of a bother to the Austrians. Everybody who was anybody played in the orchestra and percussion, and apparently a great time was had by all.

That same evening saw the premiere of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. Perhaps because the seventh is such a movin'-and-groovin' work, it came to be associated with Wellington's Victory.

Robert Greenberg, who has been my guide through Beethoven's symphonies, posits that this is a dance symphony, and after dozens of time listening to it, I found myself tapping my foot every time. There is, however, a slower movement, movement two. This movement became so popular that it was occasionally inserted into his other symphonies in performance.

Symphony No. 8 has its own bit of fun. It seems that a certain Johann Nepomuk Malzel (who was a sort of co-writer of Wellington's Victory) invented the pendulum powered metronome and presented Beethoven with one. Though I've played a few instruments in my past, I've never used a metronome. However, Greenberg insists it is a kind of torture vehicle. In any event, the second movement of the eighth symphony is a play on this device, where we hear the device being wound up, ticking, and then coming to a stop; wound again, and, hmm, it seems to be broken. In the end we hear the poor device destroyed, tossed, pounce upon, folded, spindled, and mutilated.

The Eighth also includes a minuet and trio, something he hasn't really composed since his first symphony. This occurs as the third movement.

I've heard from a number of music lovers that Beethoven's Eighth is their particular favorite, and it is a great work. For Beethoven, he didn't write another symphony for a very long time. That work, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, would turn out to be a doozy, which Greenberg states is the most important work since Monteverdi's Orfeo, of the entire 19th century, and with nothing being as altering of the art form as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1912. It's a long work, and that's what I'll be working on next.


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