By Greg Cahill
Two hundred years after its debut, the transcendent Allegretto of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, continues to captivate listeners. Why is the music world so hooked?
“I love this piece of music. It’s the second movement, the Allegretto, from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I’m no music critic, not even a musician, but this music means something special to me, with its theme of struggle and progress, of adversity and ultimate triumph,” said radio host Robert Siegel, during a 2003 broadcast commentary on the Beethoven on NPR’s All Things Considered. In the background, you could hear the seductive pulse of the Allegretto. “One year, I kept this piece cued up in my car cassette machine. At eight minutes, its duration coincided with the repeat segment of the morning news that I had no desire to hear again, so I would drive across the Potomac, inching through rush-hour traffic amused by the contrast of the high, heroic early-19th-century drama of Beethoven and the low banality of my late-20th-century commute.”
He pauses as the music swells in the background, as interpreted by the Vienna Philharmonic. “On one occasion, this music was the perfect soundtrack to life at its most exceptional,” he continues. “The Berlin Wall had come down. I had been flown to Germany to cover the story. When I awoke in a hotel on the Kurfurstendamm, I turned on the television set and saw the Berlin Philharmonic and [conductor] Daniel Barenboim playing precisely this movement of the Seventh. Outside my window, the Berlin sidewalks were packed with East Berliners. They were walking freely in family groups unafraid through the suddenly accessible western part of the city.
“For eight minutes, life and art were in perfect synch, mutual imitation, mutual validation.”
As evidenced by Barenboim’s choice of music to commemorate a moment when people hungering for freedom triumphed over the oppressive Soviet regime, Siegel is hardly alone in his admiration for this remarkably stirring music.
As Siegel pointed out to listeners in that broadcast, Franz Schubert also was haunted by that movement, in fact, throughout his entire career. Among the evidence for that claim is a passage in the fifth variation of Schubert’s Variations in A-flat major for Four Hands, written 11 years after the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, in which Schubert—who, as a teen, actually witnessed its premiere 200 years ago—quotes the Allegretto.
The Allegretto continues to work its way into popular culture.
Siegel’s own homage to this propulsive piece was spurred by the release that year of the pianist Jacques Loussier’s jazz-trio interpretation of the Allegretto as well as pianist Hélène Grimaud’s performance of John Corigliano’s 1985 “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” which is based on the Allegretto (Grimaud has said she is “haunted” by the piece).
On his blog “A Tiny Revolution,” cultural critic Bernard Chazelle, the Eugene Higgins professor of computer science at Princeton University, echoes a popular sentiment: “The Allegretto is the greatest piece of music in the Western canon. Schubert said so; Wagner agreed,” Chazelle opined in his 2008 essay “Greatest. Music. Ever.”
“…[I]n the end, where Wagner goes, I go.
“But why?” he mused. “The melody is catchy; the harmony is simple; the boum-boum, boum-boum-boum rhythm is neat, processional, and so pre-20th century. Yet, this music is deeply heartbreaking. Its
poignancy is almost physical. I’ve heard it hundreds of times over decades and it always feels fresh and enchanting.”
So what’s going on?
For two centuries, that question has plagued musicologists, psychologists, mathematicians, philosophers, composers, music nerds, and, well, blogging computer-science professors.
Why, after so much time, and after encountering so much composed and improvised music in the pop, classical, and folk realms, including the introduction in ensuing years of genres unknown in Beethoven’s time, is this music still so powerful, so compelling?
The Melancholy & the Mystery
The Allegretto is the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, which is in the key of A major. It begins in the key of A minor and is marked “a little lively” though it is considered the slow movement due to its contrasting nature with the faster first and sinewy fourth movements (the music critic Carl Maria von Weber deemed Beethoven “fit for a madhouse” after hearing the riotous 20-bar Coda).
Composer Richard Wagner, impressed by the lively rhythms that permeate the symphony, famously called the work “the apotheosis of dance,” elevating it to divine status.
The rhythm is the key.
In his 1862 critical study of Beethoven’s nine symphonies [as translated by Michel Austin], the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz marveled at the melancholy and the mystery of the Allegretto: “[A]simple rhythm is again the principal cause of the extraordinary effect produced by the Allegretto. The rhythmic pattern consists merely of a dactyl [one long and two short syllables] followed by a spondee [two long syllables] played relentlessly, either in three parts, or in only one, then in all parts together. Sometimes it serves as an accompaniment, but frequently it focuses attention on itself, and also provides the starting point for a small fugal episode with two subjects played by the strings. It appears first in the lower strings—violas, cellos, double-basses—played piano, then is repeated soon after in a pianissimo full of melancholy and mystery. From there it passes to the second violins while the cellos sing a kind of lament in the minor mode. The rhythmic pattern rises from octave to octave, reaches the first violins who then pass it in a crescendo to the wind instruments at the top of the orchestra, where it bursts out in its full force. Sounded with even greater vehemence, the melody now assumes the character of an anguished lament. Conflicting rhythms clash painfully with each other; these are tears, sobs and supplications—this is the expression of limitless grief and all-consuming suffering… But a ray of hope appears: these heartbreaking sounds are followed by a transparent melody, pure, simple, gentle, sad and resigned, like patience smiling to suffering. The basses continue on their own with their inexorable rhythm under this melodic rainbow; to borrow yet another quotation from English poetry, ‘One fatal remembrance, one sorrow, that throws its black shade alike o’er our joys and our woes.’
“After a similar alternation of anguish and resignation, the orchestra, as though drained by such a painful struggle, plays only fragments of the main theme and collapses in exhaustion. Flutes and oboes pick up the theme in a dying voice, but do not have the strength to finish it, which the violins do with a few barely audible pizzicato notes. At this point the wind instruments, reviving like the flame of a candle on the point of extinction, utter a deep sigh on an unresolved harmony and… the rest is silence. This mournful cry, which begins and ends the andante, is produced by a six-four chord, which always tends to resolve itself onto another one. Ending on an unresolved harmony is the only way to conclude, by leaving the listener in suspense and thereby increasing the impression of dreamy sadness into which everything that came before must have plunged him.”
The confidence of the composer, his assured use of simple melodies, and the sophistication of the texture and tonal structure of the Seventh, in comparison to his Sixth Symphony, composed four years earlier, remains a source of wonder. “In his Seventh, Beethoven manifests complete control of the elemental forces of musical speech, and amazing originality, and an inexhaustible fund of resources, that are not met with in such luxuriance and assurance in his previous symphonies,” blogger Chris Frigon wrote on Symphony Salon. “The second (slow) movement… approximates the second rondo-form, akin to that chosen by Beethoven for the Finale of his Third Symphony, and the slow movement of his Fifth; also, later, for the slow movement of his Ninth—inasmuch as the numerous restatements of the principal theme convey the impression of variations.”
Sir George Grove, the founding editor of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, likened the Allegretto’s striking melodies to “a string of beauties hand-in-hand.”
Born in a Time of Turbulence
Musically, sketches for the work date back to 1806 in connection, the Grove Dictionary notes, with the String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3. It’s a period that saw Beethoven reaching for new horizons and bringing greater lyricism to his sonatas and chamber works. Politically and emotionally, it was a time when the Napoleonic campaigns ravaged Europe in wars that would soon lead to the reapportionment of Europe. Beethoven himself came under combat fire, retreating on one occasion to the cellar of his brother’s home and covering his head with pillows as French artillery bombarded the elegant streets of Vienna. In the summer of 1811, plagued by ill health, including chronic stomach problems and crippling tinnitus that seared his soul, Beethoven began work in earnest on the Seventh Symphony while recuperating at a popular Bohemian spa in Teplice, in the Czech Republic, where Wagner, Goethe, Chopin, and Liszt also enjoyed the benefits of the hot springs (the spa now sports Beethoven’s name).
Beethoven completed the Seventh Symphony in May of 1812 and dedicated the work to the Russian Empress Elisabeth Aleksiev (known for her lavish court) and Count Moritz von Fries, a handsome young Viennese banker and a generous patron (also the dedicatee of two Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, Op. 23 and Op. 24, and the String Quartet, Op. 29).
The work premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813, at a charity concert for soldiers wounded five weeks earlier at the Battle of Hanau in the War of the Sixth Coalition, the confrontation between Austro-Bavarian troops and Napoleon’s fleeing army that allowed Franco forces to slip back onto French soil. The concert also included a performance of Beethoven’s minor orchestral work “Wellington’s Victory,” celebrating an earlier successful campaign against Joseph Bonaparte’s armies at the Battle of Vittoria in Spain.
At the premiere in Vienna, Beethoven conducted the orchestra led by his close friend the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (whose Razumovsky String Quartet premiered many of Beethoven’s chamber works, including several late quartets). Among the other notable musicians in the orchestra were violinist and composer Louis Spohr (who invented the chin rest), pianist Giacomo Meyerbeer (the most successful stage composer of his day), and the Italian double-bass virtuoso and composer Domenico Dragonetti.
The Seventh Symphony was a big hit—the orchestra honored the audience’s call for an encore of the Allegretto.
Beethoven himself called the piece “one of my best works.”
During the next ten weeks, the Seventh Symphony was performed in its entirety three more times in Vienna, but it was the Allegretto that stuck in the collective ear. According to the British Beethoven reference site lvbeethoven.co.uk,“[o]n occasion, it was even substituted in place of the existing slow movements of his earlier symphonies during performances of th[o]se works.”
And the Allegretto endures.
The ‘Allegretto’ in Modern Music
Today, the Allegretto is often programmed separately in concert and has been used in more than 20 major films, including the 1994 Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved and during the climactic scene at the end of 2010’s Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech. In 2006, the composer Michael Gordon rewrote the Seventh Symphony, tweaking the end of the divine and otherworldly theme of the Allegretto, so that it ends a half step higher. Last year, the American composer and violist Anthony Paul de Ritis, professor and chair of the music department at Northeastern University in Boston, quoted the Allegretto in his landmark electronic-music piece Devolution: Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra, a commission for the East Bay Symphony in Oakland, California, and DJ Spooky. For de Ritis, the repetitive nature of the Allegretto melded with the layered, minimalist loops employed by modern deejays.
“As a composer, I have a very emotional attachment to the music of Beethoven,” di Ritis says of his decision to quote the Allegretto in Devolution. “There’s the intellectual aspect, because he’s the composer’s composer—people have a visceral response to his music because of its logic, but also in those places where it defies logic. As a string player, I always feel a physical response from playing it that makes me want to play better. Beethoven doesn’t get a lot of credit for his orchestration—at least not in the way that Debussy does—but the way that he composed brought out the best in each instrument. For string players, there’s a sense of playing deep into the strings and a certain sense of expression and rhythm.
“You really feel like you get a chance to rock!
“He has the ability to put the melody into the sweet spot of the instrument, so that it can be heard in the best possible light. That kind of visceral, emotional communication really doesn’t get enough attention. With the Allegretto, as a player, you feel that Beethoven understands the power of the bow on the strings.”
More recently, the Seventh Symphony was paired with the Fifth Symphony on an acclaimed 2012 CD recorded live at Carnegie Hall on period instruments by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, under Sir John Elliot Gardiner. And Joshua Bell programmed it, with the Fourth Symphony, on his recent debut recording as the leader of the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields.
Does Bell regard the Allegretto as the greatest music ever written?
“That’s quite a statement,” he says, during a phone interview from his New York City home. “I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s not beautiful—it’s as beautiful as it gets. To say it’s the most beautiful is to discount Bach and Schubert and many others. Though, certainly, Schubert was affected by it.”
Like Schubert, Bell also has a personal connection to the Allegretto. “For me, it was one of the first classical pieces that, as a kid, completely moved me to the edge of tears—the Seventh was my mother’s favorite symphony and I remember being 11 or so when I first fell in love with it. It completely gripped me,” he says. “It is unbelievably beautiful. “The question, of course, is why is it so beautiful.” Part of the answer, he agrees, is that the Allegretto possesses a “rhythmic element that makes the melody tug at your heart.” It’s a melody that is built on layers of instrumentation in a manner that makes it quite unlike other more lyrical lines. “It’s not just a beautiful spinning melody like Schubert or Schumann would have composed. It’s so much more than that,” he says, adding that he disagrees with those who see the movement as an expression of triumph over adversity. “I think the symphony has a sense of triumph—there is nothing so triumphant as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But I’d call the second movement the ultimate expression of despair, if anything, especially as it reaches its peak. It’s the ultimate crying of lament. The slow movement even ends with an unresolved chord with no root, just as it begins. It leaves you feeling a kind of longing right from the beginning and it leaves you with that same feeling as it ends with an unstable chord. But the build of the piece, the way the instruments are layered, is just incredible.
“It’s got to be the most goose-bump–inducing piece that was ever written.”
And what, if anything, does the Allegretto reveal about Beethoven?
“It doesn’t feel autobiographical to me, though everything he wrote is autobiographical in some way,” Bell says. “But what is so great about the piece is that it’s not a sentimental melody that feels overtly autobiographical—it’s not about the love of his life or the great tragedy of his life. It somehow goes so much deeper than that. It gives you a glimpse into the human spirit.”
“I think it connects with every deep emotion. For me, it brings out the feeling of sorrow and despair and the inevitability of death. And certainly Beethoven was obsessed with his own mortality. There is a kind of inevitability of time marching on that the rhythmic element brings out—even during the sunnier sections, that rhythmic element is still going on in the lower strings.
“It’s that sense of inevitability that we connect with.”
Indeed, that ethereal, transcendental aspect casts a mystical spell and has an almost subliminal impact on the emotions. It possesses, as NPR radio host Robert Siegel noted, the power to get under your skin and to linger.
It reveals the magic of Beethoven.
“Timing is so important,” de Ritis says. “Think of comedic timing and how just a subtle shift, a millisecond earlier or later, and you might not get the laugh you want. Beethoven had some kind of inherent skill and people have written about it, and will continue to write about it, in order to try to understand this combination of timbre, tension, and resolution and how that occurs in time in any given piece of music.”
It all results in a great expectation.
Once again, blogger Bernard Chazell:
“[The German philosopher Edmund] Husserl obsessed over [the Allegretto] and modern psychologists have tried to understand why it is so powerful. Lung experts have even investigated its effect on breathing patterns. (I kid you not!) A musicologist friend of mine back at Yale thought he found the hidden key to the Allegretto’s mystery in folk dancing. Folk dancing? We’re trying to understand the H-bomb of music and from Yale what do we get?
“[So] why is the music so great? Here’s my theory… it has to do with anticipation.What makes music so pleasurable is the interplay of what you hear and what you anticipate (which is why first listenings are almost never terribly enjoyable). If 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 anticipa te 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.”
Joshua Bell on the Power of the Allegretto
Joshua Bell set clear boundaries when he directed the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields during the British orchestra’s recent recording of the Allegretto. One key consideration is the tempo. “Heed the fact that the piece is an allegretto,” he says, “and not an indulgent adagio. I’ve heard it played like a funeral march, very slowly, and that doesn’t serve the purpose of the piece. It becomes overly indulgent. The beauty of the Allegretto is its subtlety. When it is played too slowly, it becomes far too sentimental and you lose this deeper feeling of connecting with the sense of inevitability.
“And, obviously, there’s the shaping. Like any instance in which you are directing or conducting, you’re trying to get the overall architecture and shape so it creates a sense of the piece. A lot of it is how to structure the pacing and dynamics of it. The piece has to peak at the right time—you don’t want to get too loud too soon. Even coming out of the fugue, which is an incredible moment and leads up to the climax, which some call triumphant, though I don’t think so. One might have a tendency to take a ritard into it because it’s so powerful that you want to… duh, duh, duh, duh duh bah BAH…! Because you want to make it sound big. But part of the beauty of the piece is this kind of rhythmic inevitability. I find that it gets weaker if it goes big.
“Dynamically, you should follow it as it’s written. Make sure that there’s a distinct difference between piano and pianissimo—Beethoven makes it very clear where and when he wants the winds to make those changes, so you should do what’s written.
“It’s very effective.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Strings magazine.