In the 7th, Beethoven was waiting for Godot

In the 7th, Beethoven was waiting for Godot


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2020

Welcome to the 78th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Seventh symphony, opus 92 (1813)

Of the most important Beethoven symphonies – the ones with odd numbers: 3, 5, 7, 9 – the seventh receives the least critical attention. There are plenty of books about other symphonies but none I can find discusses this symphony alone. The seventh is almost at risk of being taken for granted because, at this peak in his development, Beethoven had attained so complete a command of orchestral sound that others could only stand back in awe, a response that persists to the present day.

The symphony’s premiere in December 1813, preceded by the appalling Wellington’s Victory, was at a gala concert to raise funds for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers who were wounded in the final battles against Napoleon. The symphony was mistaken by its first audiences for a second victory anthem. While there may be a swagger in the Presto third movement the rest of the work is founded on a tissue of complex and contradictory emotions. Although in four-square Haydn form, the symphony is noisier than any prior work and boldly self-assured. Beethoven presented it to publishers as ‘one of my most excellent works’. The Allegretto second movement stands out both in its majestic theme and in a regret for lives wasted in wars of imperial vanity. In a challenge to audience expectations, Beethoven did not write a slow movement, leaving it up to conductors to manipulate the emotions of audiences as they controlled the ebb and flow of the masterpiece.

The composer Louis Spohr, who played in the violin section at the first performance, has left a pathetic memento of Beethoven’s general shortcomings as a conductor, aggrevated by his near-total deafness: Hejumped into the air at the point where according to his calculation the forte ought to begin. When this did not follow his movement he looked about in a startled way, stared at the orchestra to see it still playing pianissimo and found his bearings only when the long expected forte came and was visible to him. Fortunately this comical incident did not take place at the performance.  Music, Spohr seems to suggest, makes fools of us all.

Other composers dissented. Carl Maria von Weber declared the symphony was proof that Beethoven had lost his mind. Clara Schumann’s father said he must have been drunk. Richard Wagner called it dance music: ‘if anyone plays the Seventh, tables and benches, cans and cups, the grandmother, the blind and the lame, aye, the children in the cradle fall to dancing.’ Isadora Duncan, in one of her most celebrated acts, would dance Beethoven’s seventh symphony, start to finish.

For writers, it provoked untold depths of contemplation. Emily Bronte liked to play the second movement at her piano to achieve spiritual equilibrium; hints of the symphony can be found in Wuthering Heights. ‘The emancipating power of a work like the Seventh Symphony was bound to appeal to the woman who created Heathcliff,’ writes the American literary scholar Robert K Wallace, who goes on to hypothesise that certain of Heathcliff’s rough characteristics were transplanted by Bronte from Anton Schindler’s biographical portrait of Beethoven. ‘Goethe’s celebrated reference to Beethoven as “an utterly untamed personality” utterly fits Heathcliff,’ argues Wallace. Beethoven’s existential loneliness would also have held deep appeal for the solitary Bronte.

A later innivator who was consumed by the seventh symphony was the Irishman Samuel Beckett who, in a 1937 letter, asks ‘why that terrible arbitrary materiality of the word’s surface should not be permitted to dissolve as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is dissolved by huge black pauses so that for pages on end we annot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence.’ This reads as if Becket is discovering the modernist breakthrough of Waiting for Godot through listening to this singular symphony of Beethoven’s.

Even more surprising, the second movement is the one that Edward Albee has playing on the gramophone when George splashes cold water on Nick and Martha’s dance party in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The significance of this symphony is all-pervasive, and I have barely touched what Beckett rightly refrains from calling the ‘surface’. This symphony exists on multiple levels.

There are at least 150 recordings and I have run out of space to discuss them in a single post. I’ll confined myself today to some remarkable recent recordings, moving on to the larger scale of epic performances over the course of the weekend.

The Italian musician Ezio Bosso, who died three weeks ago at the age of 48, was a composer, pianist, double-bass player and conductor. His music enhanced many films, ballets and theatre pieces but, as his physical coordination declined after a brain operation in 2011, he increasingly took up conducting. Last year, Bosso recorded Beethoven’s seventh symphony in Bologna. Regardless of his neurodegenerative condition, it is one of the most effervescent and illuminating readings you will find in any recorded archive. I was stunned and thrilled to find it on Idagio. I suspect you will be, too.


The Czech conductor Libor Pesek was a legend in Liverpool in the 1980s, illuminating an economically depressed city with colourful cycles of Mahler, Suk, Dvorak and more. I don’t remember attending a Beethoven concert of his in those years, but this 2020 recording with the Slovak Philharmonic is a firecracker. Pesek may be in his eighties but every rhythm is pinpoint and the dance is fast and furious. Pesek takes sharp bends at scary speeds, challenging the listener to keep up, or fall off the cliff.

Andrew Manze, current principal guest conductor of the Liverpool Phil, is faster still with the NDR Philharmonie of Hannover in 2020, employing historically informed methodology to frighten the horses. The sound is not as pristine as you’d expect in the 21st century but the style is irresistibly exciting. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Adam Fischer with the Danish national chamber orchestra, which is also very fast. There are some startling moments in the brass and percussion but the whole lacks flexibility in its propulsion. You want to dance? Try Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic in 1958.

Jaap Van Zweden with the New York Philharmonic (2018) struts and swaggers with the best of them, while lacking the last edge of flexibility. Totally on the wild side is Daniel Barenboim’s West-East Orchestra in Buenos Aires (2020),overflowing with exuberance and – dare I suggest it? – an invitation to tango. This might be Barenboim’s most reckless and revivifying Beethoven symphony.

More tomorrow.



  • Edgar Self says:

    I broke in with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic; then Charles Munch’s gtrst olf BSO LP with two stratospheric horns like the headlights of an incoming jet. then Furtwaengler and the VPO set a new standard.

    VERY interesting about Emily FBronte, Heathcliffe, and the adagio, Norman. Laurence Olivier must have read over your shoulder. Let’s try calling it the “Heathcliffe” symphony and see if it catches on. Makes as much sense as Elvira Madigan.

    I think Abbado and the BPO played it on

    their last visit here. I don’t like the finale taken at blurring speeds that unsettle the cellos hasn in their exposed passage, second time. Apotheosis of the dance, and all that, which would never have occurred to me. Cleverly scored in the martial bits, bras/horns going as high as they dare, then winds helping them over the ridge.

    Odd that they 7th has just two horns, Haydn-like, and the “Eroica” three, which Beethoven certainly makes the most of., with his 28 players at the first performance at Lobkowitz’s.

  • Dave Payn says:

    My personal favourite recording is one I can no longer find, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC Philharmonic from 2005, part of their cycle of all the symphonies, which were at one time available to download from the BBC and Chandos Records’ website.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I tend to like versions of the Seventh in which the conductor and orchestra highlight the primal rhythms in each movement. I’ve had problems with versions that put the lyrical elements in the foreground. I notice this tendency in the two Bruggen versions, both the Philips and Glossa versions.

    The DG Beethoven 7th with Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic is a classic and might be a trendsetter even in its time. While I say this, I might confess my fondness for Immerseel, Gardiner’s 2011 SDG version, Harnoncourt’s Teldec version and the Antonini/Kammerorchester Basel version. I like the way these various versions build up energy to release later, and I like it when the primal rhythms can suggest a Rite of Spring-style stompfest at the right time.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    For recent performances, surely as remarkable as anything listed here ( and perhaps even more so ) is Kirill Petrenko’s Berlin PO concert in 2018, available on the BPO digital concert hall, and also heard at the BBC Proms weeks later. Apollonian orchestral discipline harnessed to Dionysiac rhythmic elan. My only queries are the puzzling attacca between the first and second movements; similarly between the concluding movements. Any textual justification for this?

    • Archie_V says:

      Petrenko’s attaca, which Barenboim, among others, also does, can be justified on two grounds, I reckon. First, there is no fermata at the end of the first movement (as there is at the end of the first movement of the Pastoral, for example), and, second, the key shift from A major to A minor sounds perfectly smooth, rather than jarring.

      My only problem with conductors who opt for that attaca is a purely practical one, rather than anything to do with how they choose to interpret the score. What often happens is that as soon as the audience realise they’re not going to get their customary cough break there, they’ll cough all the magic out of the quiet low strings at the start of the allegretto.

      • Jerome Hoberman says:

        The shift from A major to A minor is *not* “perfectly smooth;” The sudden A-minor chord is a blunt negation of all that occurred before it. If it were literature that A-minor chord would be followed by a colon: a playing-out of the spiritual meaning of that negation — “You thought that was the truth? No: *this* is the truth.”

  • Graeme Hall says:

    Does anybody else remember a concert in the late 80s when Eugen Jochum replaced an ill Maazel at a Philharmonia concert? For me his Beethoven 7 that night was so fine it has ruined every subsequent performance I’ve heard. I can still hear that opening chord played with a unanimity I’ve rarely heard since.

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      It’s been a long source of regret that I found out that Jochum was replacing Maazel so late in the day. Would have love to have attended… It was a Furtwanger memorial concert IIRC

    • Lindsay Wallace says:

      Yes, I was there too & remember a wonderful performance! The first half was going to be Brahms 2 which Jochum changed to Mozart 41 because he didn’t have time to prepare the Brahms. The Mozart was just as fine as the Beethoven!

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    I like it when the first/second and third/fourth movements are linked by an attacca. The latter is more common than the former.

    There’s a nice recent recording with Honeck.

  • Joel stein says:

    I heard an amazing 7 with Tennstedt and the BSO. It has been available on some pirate discs.

  • Larry W says:

    The 1st to 2nd and 3rd to 4th movement attaccas make perfect musical sense. No waiting for to go.

  • Edgar Self says:

    There may be a practical matter: after their first-movement exrtions, the horns need to drain pipes, but they don’t enter for a while in the Allegretto while strings establish their grave dance, so perhaps the attaca isn’t a problem for them. Interesting about the fermata.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Other striking characteristics of this radiant music are the very long introduction of the 1st mvt, without thematic relation to the rest, and the nature of this mvt which is in scherzo style instead of the usual first movement sonata style music.

    When Wagner referred to ‘dance’ in connection with the 7th, he meant it as a compliment, and called the symphony – which he loved to conduct – ‘the apotheose of the dance’. An echo of the repeting punctuated rhythm of the 1st mvt can be heard in the hammering sounds of the Nibelungen workplace in Rheingold.

    • Larry W says:

      Surely you know this to be Siciliana rhythm. Ride of the Valkyries has it throughout. Also the viola variation VII in Brahms’ Haydn Variations. In the first movement of the Seventh, it is Beet-ho-ven, Beet-ho-ven. The second movement could be Lud-wig Beet-HO-ven. Manfred Honeck says it is Sancta Maria. Whatever, it is one of the greatest artistic creations of Western civilization.

    • Max Raimi says:

      While it is technically true that there is no thematic link between the slow introduction and the Allegro portion of the first movement, the bridge between them, to my mind, links the entire symphony. Famously, the introduction ends and the Allegro begins with obsessively repeated e naturals, an astonishing 55 of them.
      Obsessive repetition is a hallmark of the rest of the piece, Beethoven grinds ostinatos over a time span that no composer with a modicum of a self-preservation instinct would dare–the bass line in the coda of the first movement is an excellent example. The slow movement echoes the repeated e’s of the slow movement introduction–the principal theme contents itself with nothing but that note for more than four bars.
      In the trio of the third movement, there is more of the same as the violins hold extended a’s in octaves for an unconscionably long time; pretty much the whole trio.
      In the coda of the last movement, the bass line gets “stuck” again, the violas, cellos and basses grinding out an e-d#-e-d# pattern for 20 full bars, and then playing nothing but e naturals alternating with the oscilating e-d# for nearly another 20; the tension becomes unbearable. I was once told that Lukas Foss, back when he led the Milwaukee Symphony, had his low strings glissando between these notes; he wanted them to sound grotesque. They played it on tour for the good burghers of Munich, and it nearly caused a riot. “Das ist Las Vegas Beethoven!” somebody screamed. Lukas was delighted. For the first time in perhaps a century, people understood again how outrageous and subversive this music is!

  • Max Raimi says:

    Among other innovations, I would argue that this work has the first viola joke in recorded history. We finally get the principal melody all to ourselves to open the slow movement…and it consists of one note, a low e natural, repeated twelve times.

  • NYMike says:

    I owned a mono LP 1940s of the 7th with Philly/Ormandy that for my ears has never been surpassed in the way that cellos/basses groaned away in the last go-round of the major 1st movement theme and the long crescendo near the 4th movement’s ending. I haven’t heard that kind of underpinning in any live or recorded performance since.

  • Etienne Abelin says:

    So moving to see you mention Ezio Bosso. What an extraordinary musician he was and how absolutely heartbreaking it was to learn of his unexpected death a few weeks ago. The Beethoven 7 is a recording of a live performance in honor of Claudio Abbado who was a friend of Ezio, exactly five years after Abbado’s passing. The orchestra consisted of players of Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart, musicians of Ezio’s orchestra and young alumni of the European Union Youth Orchestra EUYO. I was able to play a number of projects with Ezio since then and was stunned by the intensity of his musicianship and power of his ideas. And by his gift as a communicator. Every single orchestra rehearsal was attended by several hundred people, devoted fans (never experienced anything remotely like it before in classical music) and turned into an existential celebration of music and life, guided by Ezio’s words. He was, in some ways, a modern-day Italian Bernstein. In late September, the EUYO will dedicate a performance to his memory.