Portrait of Beethoven in 1815, two years after the premiere of his 7th Symphony.
Ludwig van Beethoven began to work on his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, in 1811, while he was staying in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice in the hope of improving his health. It was completed in 1812, and was dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries. The symphony's second movement Allegretto is well-known and has been widely used as accompaniment in both films and commercials.
The work was premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven himself conducting and double featured with the patriotic Wellington's Victory symphony. The orchestra was led by Beethoven's friend, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and included some of the finest musicians of the day: violinist Louis Spohr, Johann Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Antonio Salieri, Anton Romberg, and the Italian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven himself described as playing "with great fire and expressive power". It is also said that the Italian guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani played cello at the premiere. The piece was very well received, and the second movement, the allegretto, had to be encored. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven's antics on the rostrum ("as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder ... at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air"), and the concert would inevitably be repeated due to its immense success.
After a long, expanded introduction in Poco sostenuto, the first movement is in sonata form and is dominated by lively dance-like rhythms.
The second movement in A minor has a tempo marking of Allegretto ("a little lively"), making it slow only in comparison to the other three movements. This movement was encored at the premiere and has remained popular since. The ostinato (repeated rhythmic figure) of a quarter note, two eighth notes and two quarter notes is heard repeatedly.
The third movement is a scherzo and trio. Here, the trio (based on an Austrian pilgrims' hymn, yet another example of applying poetry to music) is played twice rather than once. This expansion of the usual A-B-A structure of ternary form into A-B-A-B-A was quite common in other works of Beethoven of this period, such as his Fourth Symphony and String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2.
The work is known for its use of rhythmic devices. It is also tonally subtle, making use of the tensions between the key centres of A, C and F. The second movement is in A minor with episodes in A major, and the scherzo is in F major.
Critics and listeners have often felt stirred or inspired by the Seventh Symphony. For instance, one program-note author writes:
... the final movement zips along at an irrepressible pace that threatens to sweep the entire orchestra off its feet and around the theater, caught up in the sheer joy of performing one of the most perfect symphonies ever written.
The Seventh Symphony perhaps more than any of the others gives us a feeling of true spontaneity; the notes seem to fly off the page as we are borne along on a floodtide of inspired invention. Beethoven himself spoke of it fondly as "one of my best works". Who are we to dispute his judgment?
On the other hand, admiration for the work has not been universal. Carl Maria von Weber considered the chromatic bass line in the coda of the first movement evidence that Beethoven was "ripe for the madhouse" and the 20th century conductor Thomas Beecham was similarly uncharitable, saying "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about."