No other symphony of Beethoven’s has had so many weird and wonderful meanings assigned to it. There is no title to shed light upon it, no dedication to explain why it was written, so, from the start, people in need of an explanation let their imagination run wild, seeing the Seventh as a Bacchic orgy in ancient Greece, a battle of the giants, a wedding feast, a setting of scenes from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, or something completely different from any of these. Wagner’s famous description of the Seventh as “apotheosis of the dance” seems positively restrained by comparison and is a useful reminder that this symphony is mainly about keeping on the move and about the crucial importance of rhythm, a dominant feature here. Rhythm is announced in the great introduction that seems to have difficulty curbing its energies, and rhythm is displayed to excess in the course of the work. In the Vivace, the sharply accelerated siciliano rhythm takes precedence over anything lyrical; in the Allegretto that takes the place of a slow movement, everything that sings is overseen by the steady beat of a rhythmic ostinato. Two sharp commands from the orchestra, almost like starting shots, open a finale of unparalleled verve and vitality; it falls at once into the undertow of its own theme, a sort of circling figure that always accentuates the lighter beat in the bar and, constantly recharged by the initial impetus, spins breathlessly through the movement with hypnotic persistence and the precision of a clock. In this fast and furious finale, vigorously supported by the kettledrums, Beethoven rigorously pursues to the utmost his search for the apotheosis of rhythm.
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