Beethoven 7th Symphony is an exciting whirlwind of sound, a piece full of the spirit of dance and celebration.
Explosively popular when the composer premiered it, the symphony's happy energy has thrilled audiences ever since.
Personally I love it - the seventh is probably my favorite Beethoven symphony.
First, let's explore the origins of this brilliant symphony...
Vienna during the early 1810s was a grim place. Napoleon, the insane French Emperor, had conquered Vienna twice in the last decade, and the Austrian capital's citizens were fearful, tired, and unhappy.
In 1811, Beethoven found himself in the spa town of Teplice (nowadays in the Czech Republic), trying to get healthier (perhaps clear his system of all the cheap wine he liked to drink).
Inspired by the tranquility and beauty of his holiday, he set about sketching a new symphony. This one would be full of the joy of life and dance.
He completed it the next year. The premiere had to wait until 1813 though, at a charity concert for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau (fought against Napoleon's army).
The performers were top class. Beethoven himself, already Vienna's most famous composer, conducted (what a concert that must have been!), and the orchestra was packed with the very best musicians and composers of the era.
The weary, miserable Viennese audience absolutely loved the symphony's fresh and positive energy. They even demanded an encore of the beautiful second movement (still the most popular movement from the Beethoven Symphony 7).
And the piece never stopped stirring audiences into frenzies. At repeat performances in Vienna, listeners would cheer and clap their hands raw for the music which lifted their hopes and reminded them what was worth living for.
Now it's definitely time to look at the music itself...
What made the seventh symphony so popular? I think it's the bright energy and powerful rhythms.
Beethoven was known for relying heavily on rhythm to create his music, but the seventh goes further. The composer crafted almost the entire symphony from simple dance-like rhythms, evoking wild celebrations and festivals:
The symphony is in four movements...
I would love to have seen Beethoven's energetic conducting of this movement at the premiere.
Most musicians absolutely love performing the Beethoven Sympony 7. Richard Wagner, the epic opera composer, nearly frothed at the mouth praising it. He called the "apotheosis of the dance", and to prove his point he performed a solo dance to a piano transcription of the symphony.
The conductor Thomas Beecham wasn't too fond of the piece's energy though. He's quoted as saying "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about".
There are of course dozens of recordings of the seventh, and a few brilliant ones stand out.
Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic has somehow claimed the fame of being the best recording, but I'm not convinced. The energy is not that impressive, and the old recording has weak acoustics which don't capture the spirit of the piece.
Herbert von Karajan's recording from the 80s with the Berlin Philharmonic has a wonderful depth and richness. The faster-than-normal last movement will make your senses explode. The second movement is disappointing though, lacking any kind of weight or thought.
So for me the Leonard Bernstein recording, with the New York Philharmonic, is the perfect balance. The sound is raw and powerful, and the orchestra play their hearts out. All the tempi work well, except for the last two movements which I find a touch slow.
Nevertheless, it's the best recording of the Beethoven Symphony 7 for me!
You might want to have a look at (and listen to!) some of Beethoven's other symphonies...
You may also like Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, which has a similarly explosive and joyful feeling.
If you like my site, please click "Like"... thanks!