Somber: Beethoven

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven‘s (1770-1827) Symphony No. 7 is one of the happiest works I’ve heard. It has a contagious, dance-like quality. That is, every movement except movement II: Allegretto. Allegretto is Italian for “a little lively” which must only refer to the tempo and not the mood, which is much more serious, sober, solemn, even somber. There is a pensiveness, as though anticipating something terrible will happen. I can not help but think this symphony deals with the existentialism that most of us face. We spend most of our time trying to seize the day (movements I, III and IV), but some of the time we ponder the inevitability of our own death (movement II).

somber – adjective

1. dark or dull in color or tone; gloomy
2. oppressively solemn or sober in mood; grave

The movement begins with one minor chord in the woodwinds, as if to warn us there is something ominous on the horizon. What follows is an ostinato in the strings. Ostinato literally means “obstinate” and refers to a rhythmic pattern that is repeated over and over. In this case, it is the “dun dun-dun dun dun” in the first violins. It is the same rhythm as a slow “shave and a hair cut.”

The tension builds and builds in this movement as more voices are added. Drums and brass in Beethoven’s day served roughly the same purpose: to add rhythmic intensity and punctuation to the orchestra. The ranges also expand as the movement builds. The low instruments play lower and the high instruments play higher. As the music broadens, the oppression is thick enough to cut with a knife. It seems that doom is eminent.

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It is at this moment that Beethoven keeps us guessing. He modulates from minor key to the  parallel major key. It goes from sad to happy. It is as though the listener could imagine a positive outcome for just a moment. There is always hope. This adds more suspense for me, because it is not certain how things will turn out. He does this again after another climactic section. Even in the last few seconds, he brings us just a glimmer of hope before ending with a sigh of resignation.

This movement was recently given a lot of exposure when it appeared at the climax of the movie, The King’s Speech (2010). It is played during the first wartime radio broadcast given by newly-crowned King George VI. I thought it appropriate to follow my last post regarding World War I with the music set to a movie on the outbreak of World War II. Below is the transcript of that speech, and you may hear the actual recording of it here. It was truly a great speech.

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.

It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges; which sanctions the use of force, or threat of force, against the sovereignty and independence of other states. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.

This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.

It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.

May He bless and keep us all.

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