Coon Wars and Hummingbirds
Sunday Night Journal — September 7, 2008

Music of the Week: Beethoven — Symphony #7

I hadn’t heard this for years before this week, but I must have listened to it a lot at a more leisurely time in my life, because it was very familiar to me. I was about to say it was like meeting an old friend, but when one meets an old friend after twenty or thirty years there is usually a certain shock involved, which is not the case here. I remember that it was one of my favorites among the symphonies, and that’s still true. A few impressions, encouraged by Pentimento, who pointed out, in response to my hesitation in discussing classical music without a technical vocabulary, that critics used to work this way all the time:

The first movement is Beethoven in his robust dramatic mode, and as good as any similar ones in the other symphonies. The emergence of what I take to be the main theme in the first movement (I’m always a little hazy about these things) seems to me one of Beethoven’s great moments.

The second movement is a better funeral march than the funeral march in the Third, and seems to me to prefigure Mahler’s gloomy marches and dances. I’m not sure whether this is what Wagner had in mind when he described the Seventh as “the apotheosis of the dance,” but to me it seems less a dance than a lonely walk over grey hills under grey skies, burdened by regret, brightened once or twice by happy memories and a break in the clouds, ending in resignation.

The third movement is the second’s polar opposite: an excited revelation, unexpected good news, with a pause at the trio to let it sink in and to give a prayer of thanks. A very brief moment at the end acknowledges that all good news in this life is provisional.

As the fourth movement began I recalled that I had always thought it something of a letdown, and I still do. Well, letdown isn’t exactly the right word, because it actually cranks up the excitement past the level of the third, but it doesn’t seem to me the grand pull-it-all-together finale that one wants or expects. It’s almost like a second scherzo. But the sort of cavalry-charge theme that appears three times is wonderful. Perhaps there’s something technical going on that makes it fit in way that I don’t get.

The last two movements really rock, by the way. I wonder that some ambitious prog-rock group of the ‘70s didn’t try to work up parts of them.



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