Sunday, March 2, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #7

We had dinner with some good friends last night and one of them commented on how he's trying to learn more about classical music, but he just didn't really like Beethoven. Too heavy and too serious.

At first I thought to myself: Is this possible? Somebody who doesn't like Beethoven? How can this be?

George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #4
Symphony #7

Sony Classical, 1992
We talked for a bit about how some of Beethoven's music, particularly his Fifth Symphony, has become so familiar to listeners and used in so many formats that the symphony--or at least the introductory "dut dut dut daaaaahhh" part--borders on self-parody. Remember "A Fifth of Beethoven" from the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack?

I can see how mighty works like his Ninth and Fifth symphonies might be seen as ponderous and even a bit over the top, and I can also see how, compared to Mozart or Bach, Beethoven seems to be taking himself way too seriously.

On the other hand, in many of his symphonic works, Beethoven was tackling themes of life, death and fate that had immense gravitas. This is serious stuff, and his works therefore had psychological and emotional content that, until this point in history, no one had really been able to incorporate into symphonic music.

If there's anything I'm annoyed with about Beethoven, it's that the collective weight of his body of work screwed up everything for guys like Brahms and Bruckner, who were too intimidated to try their hand at composing their own symphonies. They felt that Beethoven had already said all there was to say, and that it would be pure hubris to attempt to add to it.

Maybe the Seventh, then, is the best Beethoven symphony for our friend to start with. It still contains the essential character and sound of a Beethoven symphony (you can't expect a Beethoven symphony not to have at least some self-importance), but this particular symphony just doesn't take itself quite so seriously.

Even the ending of the Seventh highlights this: listen to the final sixty seconds of the Seventh Symphony and compare it to the final sixty seconds of the Fifth. The Fifth Symphony wraps up with about 40 seconds of overly dramatic and overly triumphant major chords. The Seventh? Well, it just ends--actually kind of abruptly--with no fanfare at all.

Have a listen and see what you think!

1 comment:

Mumsicles said...

The sixth symphony, "Pastoral", offers a lighter Beethoven as well.