Saturday, January 19, 2008


Bernard Chazelle of A Tiny Revolution has written a love ode to the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (via Making Light). Deeming it the "Greatest. Music. Ever." Bernard goes through a brief analysis before deciding that he loves it so much because "[i]f you listen to the Allegretto a lot and let it sing in your head, you'll begin to hear not just the harmony provided by the composer but a million others you anticipate subconsciously. Like sea waves crashing upon the shore and interfering among one another in unpredictable ways. Somehow, it seems that Beethoven engineered the most fabulous interferences ever." One thing Bernard doesn't mention that I find so perplexing and attention-grabbing is the opening and closing chord. The A minor chord is played in second inversion, so the fifth of the chord is in the bass. This is a very unstable voicing, creating tension at the beginning like the musical equivalent of a dark and foggy waterfront. We know something will happen, but what? The same chord at the ending has two functions. First, it leads us to the rollicking Presto that resolves that unstable E in the bass up to an F for the tonic of the third movement. Second, the unstable final chord makes us question what we've heard and where we've been for the 8+ minutes of that second movement. Was it a complete thought, did we witness the complete solemn ceremony? Or is there more that we will miss as we are whisked away to the country dance of the Presto? The starting and ending chord lends an air of mystery in a subtle and insidious way, making the whole movement and the whole symphony that much more beautiful.


The Omniscient Mussel said...

This one of my favourite movements in all of music...somehow it goes straight to the core of my being. I can't wait to read Bernard's post in full.

Thanks for the link.

tim said...

Beautiful words about my favorite 8 minutes of music.

I recently bought a recording of the 7th where the conductor moves without a break into the second movement. (Bremen Kammerphilharmonie/Paavo Jarvi, and I can only guessing, hopeful, that it was Jarvi's decision...) That unstable chord, landing immediately after the hysterically triumphant end to the first movement, heightens the emotional extremes of both movements, and leaves you in no doubt that something tragic is happening...akin to the moment in Tristan Act II when the lovers are discovered by King Marke.

Perhaps this sort of artificial messing around isn't appropriate to the music; it does turn it into a "symphonic poem" (there is also virtually no break before the last movement). But your comment about the E-F motion into the third movement seems to imply that Beethoven was thinking along these lines as well. Too long a bow?

Scott said...

Robert Gauldin wrote an article, "Beethoven's Interrupted Tetrachord and the Seventh Symphony" in Vol. 5 of Integral (1991) which argues for a structure that ties all four movements together, regardless of whether there is an extra-musical program attached. So your bow isn't too long.

One of my favorite performances is Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony. It is very raw.