Monday, July 26, 2010

Great Sevenths

By the time you get to Seventh Symphonies several renowned composers turn up missing. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Schumann are among many composers who never scored more the four, five or six numbered symphonies in their lifetime. Beethoven is still around, however.

Beethoven has an honest energy that sounds bright and inspired yet there is a sophisticated technical expertise to his compositions that makes them enjoyable emotionally, intellectually, and artistically. Beethoven is never sappy. He is crisp, wide-ranging, passionate, both serious and light. This is true with his Great Seventh, the best of all symphonies considered in this post.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (1812) is of significant proportions and emotional depth, reminding me of the Eroica. The symphony as a whole is a terrific, rhythmic powerhouse. It builds from movement to movement wonderfully until we reach a kind of frenzied state. It begins with a subtle yet grand opening movement, the string section sometimes reminding you of the influence Beethoven's compositions would have later on other great romantic composers such as Wagner. About four minutes into the movement there is this wonderful shift to a joyful, folk-like dance making use of the entire orchestra. Very effective and entertaining. Violins, oboes and clarinets are all featured.

There is no slow movement really. The symphony never loses rhythm. In this sense Beethoven is relentless. The second movement establishes a primary theme with many variations throughout. Chellos and basses march before the other strings offer a counterpoint. The Presto third movement is once again bright and exciting with many opportunities for a display of technical expertise by all sections of the orchestra. Alternating rhythms, now galloping, now somber make this movement more complex than it seems. The finale is my favorite. Upbeat, complicated, passionate, at times featuring the use of strings that foreshadows the magnificent moments to come in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beethoven builds to an almost volcanic, expert climax, ending suddenly. Of all the symphonies I’ve posted about so far, this one might come closest to the description of a “thriller”. An extremely entertaining symphonic work.

Bruckner’s Great Seventh (revised 1885) is a marvel to behold for different reasons. Its first two movements are massive (well over 20 minutes each), methodical, and bold. The opening movement establishes a theme largely using strings, supported with woodwinds, building to a resounding climax. At the same time, oboes and clarinets are used to give strong melody. Bruckner contrasts nicely between idyllic passages and the sheer boisterous force of the orchestra. The second movement is one of Bruckner’s greatest pieces of music. He uses the string dominated orchestra to create a hymn-like exploration, stately throughout, and majestic. This is a pristine, visceral music.

Bruckner’s third movement is a scherzo filled with dance and drama. A wonderful listening experience that is highly rhythmic, with great depth and range of intensity and subtlety. It marches along, sometimes skipping, sometimes quiet and sweet, sometimes wrapped in raw power. The finale is grand. After a rather soft, easy opening, about 3 minutes in the whole orchestra conveys a vast heroic struggle before returning to a more contemplative tone. The struggle returns twice before being resolved in the swirling force of composition led by robust horns and triumphant trumpets.

I consider Mahler’s Great Seventh (1905) to be his most “modern” sounding symphony. It is also a return to optimism for him, and possibilities. The symphony explores mysterious, magical moments. It is also reflective, fantastic, and still romantic despite its prominent, modern tones. He names the second and fourth movements “Night Music”. It is a five-movement work once more scored for a hardy collection of orchestral assets, this time including cowbells.

The first movement is dominated by horns and trumpets and is the most solemn portion of the work. At one point it almost sounds like the Star Trek theme, just for a few notes. The second movement (the first ‘night music' movement) is also horn prominent, sometimes with a slow melody. It creates a pastoral feeling, accentuated by the aforementioned cowbells…just…dangling. The third movement is a scherzo with several contrasting sections. The fourth movement (the second 'night music' serenade section) returns to the primary theme. There is a nice mandolin and guitar section during this movement that is wonderful and noteworthy. The finale begins like a conquest, overpowering and confident expressed in bold tones, horns leading the way throughout. The movement sweeps along through several transformations before concluding with a lively brass chorale.

The Great Seventh (1925) of Sibelius was his last symphony. It is preformed in a single movement of about 22 and a half minutes. In fact, the movement is divided into four parts beginning with two Adagios, followed by an Allegro and an exciting Vivace. The symphony begins with a slow tempo that generates a sense of mystery. Ultimately, this gives way to pristine, hymn-like anthem about 5 and a half minutes in. Sweeping strings are answered by a bold solo trombone which I personally find to be moving every time I listen to it. Certainly the highlight of the symphony for me. The tempo sprightly quickens. The symphony goes through a series of variations in pace and mood accentuated by moments of grandeur and a monumental pinnacles. Near the end the unaccompanied strings deliver rich emotional depth. At opposite ends together, so to speak, a flute and a bassoon express a heartrending moment. The symphony finishes with dramatic force, though a bit muted compared with previous moments of culmination. Sibelius’ use of horns matched by rising strings is marvelous throughout the work.

Near the end he also uses a couple of short moments of silence only as Sibelius can. Mahler would fill his symphonies with quiet moments of near silence where a single instrument would offer the softest possible notes, barely audible. But Sibelius would plant punctuated moments of complete silence in some of his symphonies. Complex mingling by the various sections of the orchestra in richly textured style, its economy of composition filled with meaningful and moving passages makes this Great Seventh a high-note for Sibelius at the end of his renowned career.

Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony (1942) was composed during the Siege of Leningrad. The composer was serving at the time as a volunteer fireman within the bombed and shelled city. He completed the first three movements while encircled by the Nazis before the Soviet government insisted that he fly out and serve the propaganda efforts against Hitler’s forces. This Great Seventh premiered in a city to the east beyond the war zone in March 1942 before coming a few weeks later to Moscow when the war itself had been pushed away from the city. The first Moscow performance used a modest all-Leningrad musician orchestra that the Soviets had managed to rescue from the still encircled and starving city in the north. It was widely performed across the Allied world during the Second World War and was seen as a gesture of patriotism against fascism.

A massive first movement (over 28 minutes) sounds brave but intimately tragic. It features an extended, Bolero-like build up. A march followed by the struggling main theme. There are also moments of tenderness, usually by winds. The second movement (over 10 minutes) is methodical, string-heavy, almost a slow dance. The third movement, an Adagio, (over 19 minutes) is more brooding, with beautiful passages, perhaps my favorite of the symphony. The finale (over 18 minutes) restates the struggle, finds its desperate heart, then uses horns prominently to end on a note of victory, though at the time Shostakovich wrote this work victory was anything but certain. So, it is a profoundly hopeful symphony in addition to a testament of the intensity of the Russian will against an almost overwhelming enemy.

As a group, these Great Sevenths are definitely the most upbeat and hopeful of all the groupings posted thus far in this series. Each of them ends on a resounding note of confidence and enthusiasm. This, of course, is merely coincidental.

Note: I have been doing these classical essays on a monthly basis throughout 2010. I am going to take some time off before continuing onward with the Great Eighths. I don’t have the luxury of mindspace to properly listen to classical music right now due to other demands and interests. I have several more essays in this series planned, however, and will get to them. Stay tuned.

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