Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate, and baptized there on December 17, 1770. He died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The G major Romance was likely written in 1802 and was published in 1803; the F major is believed to have been written in 1798 and was published in 1805. The G major was published first and so bears a lower opus number. We do not have a record of their first performances, nor do we know when or by whom they were first played in this country. Jacob Krachmalnick was the first to play the Romances with the San Francisco Symphony, performing them in January 1967 with Josef Krips conducting. Itzhak Perlman was conductor and soloist in the most recent performances of the G major Romance, in February 2001. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was soloist, and Hans Graf conductor, in the most recent performances of the F major Romance in May 2007. In March 1991, SFS Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman played both Romances, with Alasdair Neale conducting, in a 75th birthday salute to Yehudi Menuhin. The Romances are scored for flute and two each of oboes, bassoons, and horns, with strings. Performance time: about seventeen minutes in total.
Beethoven began work on the Symphony No. 7 late in 1811 and completed the score in June 1812. The first performance took place at the University of Vienna on December 8, 1813. The work came to America on November 18, 1843, when Ureli Corelli Hill conducted it at the Apollo Rooms, New York, at a concert of the Philharmonic Society. The San Francisco Symphony first played this music in February 1914 with Henry Hadley conducting; the most recent performances were given in October 2010 under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Performance time: about thirty-eight minutes.
Perhaps Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra are steps on the way to the great Violin Concerto of 1806. We know nothing about their genesis and early history, only that neither Breitkopf & Härtel nor André was interested in publishing them in 1802 and that they eventually came out in 1803 (Opus 40, by Hoffmeister & Kühnel, Leipzig) and 1805 (Opus 50, Bureau d’Arts et d’Industrie, Vienna). Both are written for a violinist who has a fluent, elegant way with a highly ornamental line. The G major Romance, which has no tempo mark, is slightly the more outgoing of the two. In the F major Romance, which carries the tempo marking Adagio cantabile, we find Beethoven at his most genial. The principal theme is spacious, shapely, and elegant.
The Seventh Symphony is Beethoven’s last word for quite a few years on the subject of the big style he had been cultivating since the early 1800s. The concert at which the work had its premiere—it was a benefit for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the recent Battle of Hanau—was probably the most wildly successful of his career. What caused the excitement was not, however, Opus 92, the new symphony, but Opus 91, Wellington’s Victory, or The Battle of Vitoria, originally written for a mechanical instrument called the Panharmonicon but presented even at this, its first performance, in the version for orchestra. (At Vitoria, in northeast Spain, an army of English, Spanish, and Portuguese troops under the Duke of Wellington defeated the French on June 21, 1813. In the battle of Hanau, that October, Napoleon thrashed the mostly Bavarian army that attempted to block his retreat toward the southwest.)
The Panharmonicon was an invention of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, whose most enduring contribution to music was the first dependable metronome. Between the Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory, another gadget of Maelzel’s, a mechanical trumpeter, played marches written for the occasion by Dussek and Pleyel. So great was the success that the entire program was repeated later in the month, again in January 1814, and once more in February. To Beethoven’s annoyance, the critic of the Wiener Zeitung referred to the Seventh as having been composed “as a companion piece” to Wellington’s Victory. But the public liked the “companion piece” too, and the composer Louis Spohr, one of the violinists in the orchestra for the whole series of concerts, reports that the second movement was encored each time.
A semi-slow introduction, the largest ever heard in any symphony until then and still one of the largest, defines great harmonic spaces, first A major, then C major (the gently lyric oboe tune), then F major (the same tune on the flute). The excursions to C and F are entered upon with startling bluntness. Obviously Beethoven’s aim is to draw attention not only to these shifts, but to these new harmonic areas, and in fact every one of the symphony’s journeys is foreshadowed here. So important are these journeys that Frederik Prausnitz, in his wonderfully stimulating book Score and Podium, refers to the Seventh Symphony as a “Tale of Three Tonalities.” The material—scales, and melodies that outline common chords—is of reckless simplicity. Gradually, with a delicious feeling for suspense, Beethoven draws the Vivace from the last flickers of the introduction. Having done so, he propels us with fierce energy and speed through one of those movements of his that are dominated by a single propulsive rhythm. The coda, as so often in Beethoven, is virtually another development, and Beethoven heaves it to a tremendous climax by making a crescendo across a tenfold repetition of an obsessive, harmonically off-balance bass.
There is no slow movement. The Allegretto that the first audiences—indeed audiences throughout the nineteenth century—liked so much is relaxed only by comparison with what comes before and after. A subtly unstable wind chord begins and ends the movement. It is a chord of A minor, the home key, but with a “wrong” note—E instead of A—in the bass. When we first hear it, it sets up the “walking” music of the lower strings; when it reappears at the end, it is not so much a conclusion as a slightly eccentric preparation for the F major explosion of the scherzo. That scherzo’s contrasting trio, which may or may not be a quotation of a pilgrims’ hymn, is marked to go “very much less fast,” and ever since Toscanini took it strikingly faster than his colleagues (though still “very much less fast” than the extremely quick music of the movement’s outer sections), conductors, critics, and others have not ceased to argue about just what Beethoven meant—how much less is “very much less”? As in many of the big works of this period in his life, including the Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven makes the journey through the trio and the reprise of the scherzo twice, though with amusing variants.
The finale is fast, too, but the sense of pace is quite different. The scherzo, sharply defined, moves like a superbly controlled machine. The finale carries to an extreme point, unimagined before Beethoven’s day and rarely reached since, a truly wild and swirling motion adumbrated in the first movement. Here, too, Beethoven builds the coda upon an obsessively repeated bass—just a pair of notes grinding away, G-sharp/A at first, then working its way down through chromatic degrees until reaching the dominant, E, and its neighbor, D-sharp, the whole inspired and mad process being spread across fifty-nine measures. Of course, to sound wild it must be orderly, and rhythmic definition is everything, here as in the notoriously difficult first movement.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: For the Romances—Itzhak Perlman has recorded both Romances with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics).
For the Symphony No. 7—Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media) | Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (Brilliant Classics) | George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics) | Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA)
Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books) | The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, by Anthony Hopkins (Cambridge University Press; reprinted by Scolar Press) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton) | The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson) | Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)
DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.