Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
Herbert von Karajan
Catalogue No.

There is a celebrated letter from the year 1810 in which Bettina Brentano enthuses to the poet Goethe about a recent meeting with Beethoven. ‘When I open my eyes’, Beethoven had announced to her, ‘I must sigh … I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.’ ‘Music,’ he continues, in words which will interest all those who feel in the finale of the Seventh Symphony a certain Bacchanalian element, ‘is the wine which inspires us to new generative processes and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine to make mankind spiritually drunken.’

According to Beethoven’s effusive amanuensis, Anton Schindler, the Seventh Symphony’s premiere was ‘one of the most important moments in the life of the master, the moment at which all the hitherto divergent voices united in proclaiming him worthy of the laurel.’ Though the whole symphony was received with acclaim, it was the second movement, the elegiac Allegretto, which struck the most responsive chord in the minds and imaginations of the audience. It was encored and demanded ‘da capo’ wherever and whenever it was played. In Paris, it was used to sustain the (then ailing) Second Symphony; and it was even inserted into the Eighth, ousting the popular Allegretto scherzando. The influential ‘Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung’ hailed the movement as ‘the crown of modern instrumentalist music’ and Schubert, ever alive to Romantic pathos, used its metre and its mood in several of his most highly-charged orchestral, instrumental and chamber works. This enormous popularity is interesting. In form, the Allegretto is not unlike the Funeral March of the ‘Eroica’. There is the same march pulse, a similar overall plan, a central fugato and a disintegrating end. But the quicker pulse (scrupulously observed by Karajan in this present performance), the austere beauty of the scoring – something which is a feature of the entire symphony – and, above all, the sense of this being a rare distillation of the mood of heroic pathos, all seem to have made for a swifter than usual osmosis between the composer and the public’s own inner imaginings.

In spite of being programmed at its premiere with the much less demanding ‘Wellington’s Victory’ symphony, pictorial and patriotic (a work whose literalism might have made even the composer of the ‘Sinfonia Domestica’ stare), and in spite of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum, faithfully chronicled for us by Spohr (‘as a ‘sforzando’ occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a ‘forte’ he jumped in the air,’ and so on), the premiere was a great success. The orchestra, led by Schuppanzigh, and including such men as Spohr, Hummel, Meyerbeer, Salieri, Romberg and the great double-bass virtuoso Dragonetti, played (according to Beethoven himself) with great fire and expressive power. And yet, the charismatic Allegretto apart, is not this a fierce, revolutionary work which one might have expected to daunt contemporary audiences, just as Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ did almost exactly one hundred years later? When Weber heard the chromatic bass line in the coda of the first movement, he declared the composer ripe for the madhouse; and there are, in the finale, undertones of war, a terrible eruptive power which may well remind us that 1812 was as traumatic a year in European history as, say, 1916.

Yet for all its fire, the Seventh is not at all an iconoclastic work. ‘Myself I must re-make,’ wrote W.B Yeats, greatest of all the twentieth-century poets; and Beethoven, writing at a white heat of inspiration, seems to echo that cry in the Seventh Symphony. For there is about the finished work – so organic, so inevitable – a self-evident and self-delighting wholeness. The finale may well be Bacchic, but there is here nothing of the purely destructive frenzy of the Maenads in Sophocles’ great drama on the subject. In this respect, it is interesting to note how often C major crops up during the symphony (it first appears just 22 bars into the searingly beautiful slow introduction, sung rapturously out on the oboe), with a force, a subtlety and an inevitability to which the Fifth Symphony, for instance, can hardly lay equal claim.

Like Toscanini before him, Herbert von Karajan has always had a special affection for the Seventh Symphony and a special genius in interpreting it, ‘Karajan’s Seventh is magnificent,’ wrote the influential ‘Record Guide’ of Karajan’s early Philharmonia recording of the symphony. ‘The playing throughout the evening was truly superb, every instrumentalist bowing and blowing as though for dear life … we could hear things in the score which usually we are obliged to seek out by eyes reading it,’ wrote Neville Cardus in ‘The Guardian’ when, shortly before making this present recording, the Berliners played the symphony in London in 1961.

As a young conductor, Karajan was convinced that traditional interpretations of the symphony had taken from it much of its elemental fire. Remembering Mahler’s dictum that the clear articulation of every note marks the upper limit of a quick tempo, Karajan has striven to bring a fiery tempo and a vital articulation of every note into harmony with one another. In achieving this, he has produced a fierce, yet intensely lyrical, reading of the symphony, a true apotheosis of the dance, a telling example of the reconciliation of orchestral virtuosity with the deep, dark, Dionysian forces which sustain this most elemental of Classical symphonies.

Few symphonies are launched in a more exhilarating fashion than Beethoven’s Eighth. Like the poet Donne, Beethoven tosses his material down before us with an irresistible plainness. The sketches show Beethoven paring everything into shape, removing a launching ostinato figure, tightening triplet excursions, giving the music its lean athletic shape, its snapping vitality, its coruscating wit.

Foreshortening of material was not Beethoven’s only concern, though. The Eighth Symphony, for all its apparent brevity, is at times generously expansive. The wonderful Menuetto is started by a powerfully ruminative preamble on strings and bassoons; the Trio, with its bucolic horn writing, is as leisurely as anything you will find in the length and breadth of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Beethoven referred to himself as being in an unbuttoned mood – ‘aufgeknopft’ – in the Eighth Symphony; and so he is, though in a host of different ways. At times he is as expansive as a well-fed alderman. At other times the humour is rough, abrupt, taunting, teasing the listener almost beyond endurance. What are we to make of the C sharp which interrupts the finale after just 17 bars? As the movement goes its high-spirited way, its progress seems to be a model of decorum, albeit touched with the drollest effects. (The transition on timpani and bassoons is an effect which Haydn would have delighted in.) The C sharp remains, though, a spectre at the feast. And it returns, along with a cluster of remarkable alarums and excursions, precisely at the point at which we imagine the movement to be drawing to its close. At its behest, the music switches alarmingly into F sharp minor, silencing drums and natural brass, who are unable to utter in so foreign a key. Of course, all ends happily, though the recklessness of the coda and its sheer length (the tail more or less wagging the dog) are themselves comical in a symphony which everywhere purports to be a model of decorum, economy and (in the close of the first movement and the Allegretto scherzando) wit.

No wonder that Goethe, when he encountered Beethoven for the first time, thought him ‘an entirely uncontrolled person’! Artistically, though, Beethoven is thrillingly in control. How irresistibly he builds towards the first movement’s central ‘fortissimo’ (fff), a fearsome point of arrival (Sir George Grove calls it ‘a wild tornado’) with cellos and basses singing out the movement’s principal theme in the cellarage. Yet Beethoven’s triple ‘forte’ is achieved with the standard Classical orchestra (no trombones), and how deftly the woodwinds assuage the storm with theme and counter-theme. All this puts the music more or less unequivocally in the line of its great predecessor, the Seventh Symphony – a point which has not been lost on Herbert von Karajan, whose reading of the Eighth has always been intensely thrilling, a performance which abates no jot of the outer movements’ inexorable energy, yet which is wonderfully easy and assured within.

Richard Osborne


Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, Op. 93

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Recording information

Executive producer: Prof. Elsa Schiller
Recording producers: Otto Gerdes, Otto Ernst Wohler
Recording engineer: Günter Hermanns
Recording location: Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, March 1962 (No. 7), January 1962 (No. 8)