Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Movement 2
June 11, 2018 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Why Is Beethoven's Allegretto So Completely Captivating? The second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7—the Allegretto—has captivated listeners since the symphony’s 1813 premiere, when it was so popular that the orchestra used it as an encore. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on why this particular movement continues to engage us.
posted by homunculus (65 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
I woke up with this playing in my head, so I've been obsessing over it all day. It may have been used in a soundtrack recently, anyone notice?
posted by homunculus at 4:21 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Watching the animated graphical score (third link) just boggles my mind how any human being could create something so extraordinary, and it was just one small part of his body of work. Damn!
posted by homunculus at 4:25 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]

It's used during the final scene of The King's Speech.
posted by lharmon at 4:26 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Yeah, i was thinking in the last week or so, in something new. It's on the tip of my brain...
posted by homunculus at 4:34 PM on June 11

It was used in the previous episode of Westworld.
posted by jouke at 4:34 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

Bingo! Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 4:38 PM on June 11

The first movement is also completely captivating, and the fourth movement is completely captivating. Beethoven's seventh is almost flawless. The only problem with it (for me) is that the third movement is a little hard to figure out, and if a performance fails, it's not in the 2nd movement, which is hard to ruin, but in the 3rd. Two of my favorite performances:

Guido Cantelli

Wilhelm Furtwangler

I would love it if other people mentioned their favorite performances.
posted by acrasis at 4:42 PM on June 11 [12 favorites]

I was certain that Stanley Kubrick had used the Second Movement in one of his movies - it feels quintessentially Kubrickian.

It turns out that he didn't. However, someone has created a fantastic montage of scenes from Kubrick's work set to the Allegretto.
posted by New Frontier at 5:04 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

There's a nice counter tenor (?) vocal version in the opening credits of 'Zardoz' (a great movie, by the way;)

It has appeared in several other TV/films from time to time, not recalling when. It's a standard portentous filler piece.

(Pete Seeger did a banjo version of part of Van B's 9th that was on the Morgan Fisher compilation, but my brain keeps thinking that he also banjoed this movement? It must have appeared to me in a dream, sigh);
posted by ovvl at 5:30 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I was certain that Stanley Kubrick had used the Second Movement in one of his movies - it feels quintessentially Kubrickian.

Not trying to derail this, but are you thinking of Kubrick's sampling of Berlioz's Dies Irae in The Shining?
posted by Fizz at 5:50 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

ZARDOZ was the film that used this music throughout. Yes, an excellent, if rather arcane, film with Sean Connery in a thongish red outfit. I fell in love with this particular piece of music because of this film.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:50 PM on June 11 [10 favorites]

I'm sure I'd heard the movement somewhere before, but I'm embarrassed to say that X-Men: Apocalypse was what hooked me on the Allegretto and sent me off on further exploration.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:53 PM on June 11

Also used in the opening credits of "The Fall."
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:06 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]

I've always loved this piece! Stop making its popularity widespread which will make me look like a noob.
posted by Justinian at 6:16 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

Yeah, when I was watching that episode of Westworld, I was reminded of Zardoz, and then Beethoven's 7th came on and i was like "What!"
posted by QDeesp at 6:17 PM on June 11

It was used in the previous episode of Westworld.

Strike the Match
posted by homunculus at 6:21 PM on June 11

Stop making its popularity widespread which will make me look like a noob.

It was written in 1813. We're all noobs.
posted by homunculus at 6:22 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]

I first heard it in Mr. Holland's Opus and I was immediately obsessed...
posted by middlethird at 6:50 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

This really makes me think of the theme to Fargo (the movie) but it's not the same....but it so strongly evokes the Fargo music for me....I don't get it....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:05 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

The most perfect piece of music ever written IMO. I wrote one of my college essays about it. Makes me cry like 70% of the times I listen to it.
posted by potrzebie at 7:42 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I listened to this lying on the floor looking out the window one afternoon (followed by Ase’s Death from Peer Gynt) when a fast moving thunderstorm was roiling across the sky and just wept. I don’t know what it makes me feel but it’s nearly hypnotic.
posted by annathea at 8:11 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

If you have time to deep dive on Beethoven, I highly recommend PBS’ Keeping Score episode on Eroica.

Beethoven was straight baller.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 8:20 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

New Frontier, I think some of the Handel arrangements from Barry Lyndon were scored similarly.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:28 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Used in Frances (1982) when the Clifford Odetts character seduces Jessica Lange, wordlessly strewing rose petals on the bed.
posted by Rash at 8:28 PM on June 11

When Daughter was 11, last year, her favourite piece was Beethoven 9.

She would play it on her laptop and her phone, constantly, and I would hear her shouting 'Freunden!" from her room at the end of the house.
I took her to see our local symphony orchestra perform Beethoven 9. At interval she told me it was the best night of her life.
On the way home she asked me what my favourite Beethoven was, and I said that as much as I liked 9, it was probably not as good as 5 or 7.
She dismissed me out of hand.

"Nothing can be as great as 9" she insisted. She confessed she had not actually heard 7 though, but it couldn't matter, as nothing was as great as 9.

When we arrived home it was late, and midweek, but I put on a recording of the Allegretto of 7 - it was Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the '60's, remastered, all full continental and Germanic and you can almost hear the swish of the baton and the flutter of his shirtsleeves he is pushing so hard to drag that emotion out of the score.

And in that moment, her mouth agape, I saw the scales fall from her eyes.
posted by Plutocratte at 9:01 PM on June 11 [49 favorites]

The main motif evokes a sequence of events that has been set in motion by people with incomplete knowledge, who did not realize what they were doing, but now the situation is beyond their control and will reach its tragic conclusion no matter what they do. I'm sure I got that from some movie but the feeling is really strong and specific.
posted by scose at 9:02 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]

Great thread all around
posted by growabrain at 9:21 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]

I think part of the reason that it’s so satisfying is that the passacaglia-ish form that it takes on is naturally alluring in the hands of a skilled composer that can manifest its development adequately. The thematic consistency gives the listener a bedrock to gauge future developments against, so that they are able to register at each intensification of the setting what has changed and what has been augmented. And then the Allegretto realizes those intensifications with very intuitive means: the rhythmic framework remains largely constant, but the orchestration and harmonic content intensifies in very immediately accessible ways. There’s so much more in the basic nature of the melodic motives and harmonic content that’s hard to articulate, but I think that’s a big factor.
posted by invitapriore at 9:32 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

Drop @ 2:36
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:54 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

Two somewhat related facts:

1. Wagner referred to the Seventh as the "apotheosis of the dance". (May help to think on that.)
2. When pupil Carl Czerny asked why the Seventh is more popular than the Eighth, Beethoven replied "Because the Eighth is so much better." ;-)

>I would love it if other people mentioned their favorite performances.

As a lifelong FANBOY (I seldom admit that, and don't get me started), I'll answer that this way: the only box-set of The Nine I ever bought was directed by George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. (Yes. It was a world power at the time.)

And for a really different dramatic take on the 7th, try 34-year-old Colin Davis (1961) (SLYT).
posted by Twang at 12:54 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]

I have always just absolutely adored Beethoven 7. My other composer friends swear by the 8th, which yeah, it's a more innovative and compositionally interesting work I guess, but the 7th will always have my heart. That 4th movement...

In a lot of Beethoven pieces there's always these tiny moments, like one note moments, that just get me and I always listen with great anticipation for them. In the 2nd movement of the 7th symphony, there's this bit after the violins come in, where the violas are doing the counter melody, and they slide from a D to a C# to a C and it sound blues-y and it just floors me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:35 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

She would play it on her laptop and her phone, constantly, and I would hear her shouting 'Freunden!" from her room at the end of the house.

Freude! (Joy!) ("Freunden" is "friends".)

/ Thank goodness you put a stop to that!
posted by notmtwain at 4:40 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

One time I happened upon a full orchestra rehearsing at an open-air auditorium and got a little free concert. I might have just slowly passed by had they not been doing No. 7 Mvmt. 2. The only thing that detracted from the perfect serendipity of the moment was that, being a rehearsal, they kept stopping and starting it again. Actually, no, that made it better.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:48 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

When I was a young teen, and back when Philadelphia had a full time classical music station, I was introduced to #7 while listening to the radio on a snow day off from school. A gentleman named Jules Rhind, a presenter (and I think also a news person), gave a short lecture on #7 before playing it. He ended by saying that #7 was the best Symphony ever written. After it was over, and after I came back to earth, I agreed with him, and still do today. Mr. Rhind also said that the 2nd movement was so captivating, so enchanting that he missed his cue to flip the record over.
posted by james33 at 5:43 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

> Freude! (Joy!) ("Freunden" is "friends".)

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!

Great thread; thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 6:04 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

ZARDOZ is that movie where a giant stone head flies around vomiting out guns to dudes on horseback and then Sean Connory in a red thong number gets abducted by immortal sexy women and they don't understand boners and they show him various types of porn to see which causes the erection and then they punish people by aging them years proportionate to their crime and there's a whole section of crazy ass old people that try to eat him or something, right?
posted by lazaruslong at 6:07 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]

I think I played this before I heard it. I played cello as a kid, and loved the local youth orchestra. That's how I discovered a lot of classical music. I still remember playing the opening to Brahms #4 .

Beethoven's 7th astonished me. A bit like Plutocratte's daughter, I loved listening to #s 5+9 (my first stab at conducting was the Fifth's last movement). Playing the 7th was like... discovering another world, one where passion, energy, and technique were perfectly fused. I cried at the end of the Allegretto, and vowed to have it played at my funeral.

That's still what I want.
posted by doctornemo at 6:11 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

Beethoven 7 is hard, especially the third movement, one of Beethoven's trickiest scherzos. My personal favorite recording is by John Eliot Gardiner and his period-instrument ORR ensemble, his whole Beethoven symphony cycle is truly revelatory. I've performed this symphony as conductor three times, and first played it as a horn player when I was maybe 19, and it remains as amazing and moving to me as ever, maybe more. (And I would way rather be on the podium for this one than back in the horn section--the horn parts for this piece are famously ridiculous and ulcer-inducing.)

My sense is that the appeal of the second movement is two-fold: Beethoven's typical craft, which creates exquisite moments that send shivers up and down spines (like Lutoslawski mentions), and also the open and patient pace of compositional development. One of Beethoven's most obvious innovations as a composer in his time, was to shrink melodies down to little bite-sized units that we call 'motives.' A short, pithy main idea like a motive (think of the four notes that open his fifth symphony) tends to focus a listener's ear more on process, i.e., how that motive is developed, changed, etc., because there's not much there to listen to in the first place.

In this movement, Beethoven starts with a typically spare idea, barely even a motive, and then slowly (very slowly) adds and develops and spins out a larger process that is very easy to hear and follow. Combined with the simply exquisite sounds (orchestration, etc.) from his craft, I think that a substantial, cumulative dramatic effect results from most listeners being able to easily follow the details of musical development. This makes for an especially moving listening experience. As the wonderful music scholar Richard Crawford always emphasized, perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience (after all, the first thing one recognizes about a new song is not that it's new, but that it's a song--which is a kind of very common musical form described as 'strophic').
posted by LooseFilter at 8:22 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]

I just played this a month or so ago as a section cellist. My stand partner aptly said, "[the beginning of the second movement] is one of the best pages in all of orchestral cello playing."

I confess to having joined that orchestra just to play this piece. It was so worth it.
posted by hollisimo at 9:45 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]

@doctornemo not to derail into CELLOTOWN, but i could never come up with good fingerings for the beginning of Brahms 4 that don't involve a ton of ugly string crossings...
posted by hollisimo at 9:52 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

I first heard this in a soundtrack to a classic movie - black and white - when I was a kid, like 10-12 years old. The kind of classic movie that WTBS in Atlanta used to show. It was years before I learned what it was from; and I remembered well how much it had moved me. Searches have given me only references to its use in recent (since 1970) films. I would have sworn I made an AskMe about this, but it is not in my history. Any idea?
posted by thelonius at 10:02 AM on June 12

A list at the top of Yahoo:Answers to What movies contain Beethoven's symphony 7 allegretto? suggests The Black Cat, maybe?
posted by Rash at 10:16 AM on June 12

Other than The Black Cat (1934), the only other possibility appears to be The Long Night (1947). Complete list is here.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:28 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

You had me at Sean Connery in a red thong.

And then you reeled me in with The Black Cat, which features a silhouetted shirtless Boris Karloff.

This week, on Metafilter's Beethoven and Beefcake Hour.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:38 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

For me, the clever swapping of major and minor (C/c in passing tone, A/a at the end, B/b at the turn -- and if A minor is the movement's key, then B major is scientifically the saddest chord in the world)
posted by kurumi at 10:45 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]

I joined metafilter 14 years ago for a thread with people discussing Beethoven.
So tx for this one as well.
posted by jouke at 11:07 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

Other than The Black Cat (1934), the only other possibility appears to be The Long Night (1947).

They showed a lot of horror movies - it could have been The Black Cat
posted by thelonius at 11:38 AM on June 12

The main motif evokes a sequence of events that has been set in motion by people with incomplete knowledge, who did not realize what they were doing, but now the situation is beyond their control and will reach its tragic conclusion no matter what they do.

Way back in the day when I was a color guard kid in high school I was in a performance with this as the soundtrack, and it was choreographed as, abstractly, a procession that starts out basically serious but a little off-kilter and gets gradually weirder. So, not dissimilar from your interpretation!
posted by clavicle at 12:34 PM on June 12

My personal favorite recording is by John Eliot Gardiner and his period-instrument ORR ensemble

Beethoven: Symphony no. 7 op. 92, Gardiner, ORR

Thanks for the tip!
posted by homunculus at 1:56 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

I can't believe nobody has mentioned that this was the soundtrack for Nicolas Cage being obliterated at the end of the world in his tour de force Knowing (2009).
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:01 PM on June 12

This reminds me why I loved studying music theory. Because you could analyze great music all you want, but you could never explain why it made you FEEL that way.

If you'd like to follow the score, here's a YT vid with sheet music,* performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, conductor von Karajan. 2nd movement starts at 11:23, but really, the whole symphony is worth a listen.

(*And ah yes, I'd almost forgotten how challenging orchestral score-reading is, and also, I have forgotten alto clef.)

middlethird, thanks for mentioning Mr. Holland's Opus. I remember really liking that movie.
posted by NorthernLite at 2:48 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite uses of Beethoven in film is when they used the opening bars of the 9th to awaken Christian Bale's character in Equilibrium. The rest of the film, not so much.
posted by homunculus at 3:00 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

Awesome to see such an active Beethoven thread! (My impression of classical-music threads in the past has been 3-5 comments from hard-core aficionados and/or performers and then crickets.) It's inspired me to delurk and share my personal underappreciated Beethoven fave: the Fourth Symphony! All the expert-types talk about what a slight confection it is, nestled between bruisers 3 and 5, but to my amateur ears the first movement in particular is filled with joyous rollercoaster energy that just won't stop. (Also has a minor-key slow intro that's total goosebump fuel.) My favorite performance (currently) is the one from the Gardiner cycle LooseFilter so rightly praised upthread. SO GOOD!
posted by obliviax at 3:46 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]

Not very well known, but Robert Schumann wrote piano variations on the theme of the second movement of Beethoven's seventh.
posted by Namlit at 9:37 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]

The guy how did the animated graphical score has done many more for Beethoven's other work as well as for other notable musicians It's worth delving into.

posted by homunculus at 9:57 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]

Thanks homunculus for reminding me of this [insert superlatives here] music. This movement captured me in my late teens and keeps reappearing when needed. I needed it today.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:29 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

homunculus, I loved that scene in Equilibrium as well. It was just so... so right.

An early impression someone once made on me was at an orchestration-for-amateur-beginners seminar, when he said we could study scores, including "Beethoven's too, I guess, it'll be a bit simplistic though..."

It was, shall we say, not a favorable impression. No, Beethoven's symphonies maybe don't use 100-piece orchestras with 65 distinct instruments. No, that doesn't make what he did do a whit less than solid, impactful, and elegant. Subtlety is a thing.
posted by seyirci at 10:07 AM on June 13

obliviax, I looove the Fourth, especially the goofy and delightful woodwind writing--like this upside-down passage. It sounds like those rhythms start on the downbeat, but they actually start on the upbeat, like a DJ turning the beat around.

Beethoven loved to confuse and obscure meter, with displaced accents (i.e., not on strong beats or on downbeats) and hemiolas (groups of two pulses in the context of three-pulse groups), like this passage from the Third--he doesn't let the music return to a regular 3/4 metric feel for almost a full minute. I can't imagine how wild that must have sounded to listeners in 1805, it must have been just completely WTF.

(Plus all the fireworks of the orchestration, especially that cadence going into the 8:00 mark, which makes that penultimate chord sound much more dissonant than it really is--Beethoven lifted that exact cadence from a Mozart symphony, actually--and makes listeners pay vivid attention to the unexpected resolution of that stabby dissonance, which is very different from how Mozart resolved it. But now we're getting into really technical stuff about how specifically Beethoven innovated Classical technique and practice, yadda yadda. But it is fascinating to me how much of what he introduced into our musical imaginations, like turning the beat around, is still with us in contemporary manifestations. Beethoven really understood music as a listening experience, a phenomenon rather than a thing, which I think really spurred his imagination to these places...kind of ironic that the work-concept in music arose around his compositions specifically. He didn't want his works to be immutably sacrosanct as much as he had conceived and created very particular and new kinds of musical experiences, and so wanted to be sure that they would be performed as accurately as possible, so that they have the intended effects. Anyway.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:11 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

Subtlety is a thing.

To wit, the most boring orchestrational choice possible: one violin, playing alone. Brahms said, about this piece:
On one stave, for a small instrument, [Bach] writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
Anyone who calls Beethoven's orchestration simplistic should be laughed out of the room, especially in a teaching & learning context.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:18 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

Well, this is different: Hidden Citizens - Moonlight Sonata
posted by homunculus at 11:22 AM on June 13

Shit, I did not realize how early Beethoven has started to lose his hearing. If Wikipedia is right, he didn't conduct the 7th (as Mr. Holland claims) but he was already impaired when he wrote it. Wow.
posted by homunculus at 2:08 PM on June 13

Also: re: the Fourth: It drives me nuts when people describe it as "classical" and "Haydnesque." I mean, I love Haydn like an adopted dad, but no WAY could he have composed that shit.

No fucking WAY.

(sorry am a bit drunk)
posted by obliviax at 7:18 PM on June 13 [6 favorites]

For years I saved the 4th as the one symphony I *hadn't* heard. Just ... saved it for last, for years. It was worth the wait.

I'll boldly go here too: If you haven't really *listened* to Schubert's 'Great' ? Don't wait forever. A match for Beethoven? IMO, yes ... and melodically? one up.
posted by Twang at 11:24 PM on June 14

melodically? one up.

Definitely. His unfinished symphony is to me one of the most idiomatically, stylistically perfect pieces of music ever made.

I mean, I love Haydn like an adopted dad, but no WAY could he have composed that shit.

This is hilarious, and one of the best comments about any music I've ever read.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:38 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]

I mean, really, WTF is that theme for the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth? That is a seriously dumb tune, and it could only be saved by something outrageous and utterly improbable, like treatment in a sublime set of orchestral variations followed by a whole damn cantata with singers and everything, all of it virtuosically imagined and composed in a way that kind of reinvents the form of the symphony. Maybe that could save that insipid melody.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:41 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

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