Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall: Beethoven’s 7th Symphony

Hearing Beethoven as if for the first time – legendary conductor Jordi Savall and his early music ensemble in the Laeiszhalle.

Jordi Savall and his chamber orchestra Le Concert des Nations presented their Beethoven cycle in the Laeiszhalle in October 2021. The Catalan conductor’s goal was to »give back the energy to Beethoven’s symphonies, which are so famous and all too often performed in an overloaded manner«, he explained. And so the meticulous music researcher and his specialist early music ensemble gave Hamburg music lovers a chance to hear Beethoven with new ears. »Radical and refreshingly different!«, praised the Hamburger Abendblatt. In addition to the Sixth Symphony, their performance of the Seventh Symphony is now also available as a concert stream.

Jordi Savall conducts Beethoven's Sixth Symphony in the Laeiszhalle.

Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
Le Concert des Nations Le Concert des Nations © Daniel Dittus
Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus


Le Concert des Nations

conductor Jordi Savall


Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

The artists

Jordi Savall – conductor

Le Concert des Nations

Le Concert des Nations
Le Concert des Nations © Toni Peñarroya

An orgy of rhythm :On Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

Have you ever wanted to look over a composer’s shoulder as they work? If so, you can either travel to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn and study the 100+ surviving pages there that Beethoven filled with sketches for his Seventh Symphony. Or, even better: listen carefully. Because listening to the beginning of this symphony is just as good as paying a visit to the composer’s workshop.

The music initially starts with the woodwinds inching forward cautiously. Then, in the strings, a semiquaver movement creeps in, restlessly scurrying up the scale. But after around three minutes, the music reaches a dead point, a single note, repeated by bewildered flutes and violins. What now? Beethoven’s solution: he revives the note by moving it and giving it a pulse. The result of this compositional cardiac massage is a merry, skipping rhythm in 6/8 time.

Rhythmic characters

And just like that, we’ve defined the theme of this symphony: rhythm! In this work, Beethoven is far less interested in melodies or complicated structure models than usual – far less in any case than he is in the rhythmical components and the pure energy of the propelling force. In this regard, the symphony represents a radical further development of his Fifth Symphony. While in the Fifth, Beethoven had established the cosmos of the entire work from a single, rhythmically distinctive motif (»Tatatataaa«), in the Seventh it is the principle of rhythm in and of itself that dominates the work. The first movement is so completely dominated by the presence of the dance-like 6/8 beat that not even a melodic counter-theme can assert itself. The musicologist Romain Rolland even spoke of an »orgy of rhythm« in this context.

The second movement is also reduced to a rhythmic model that would suit a funeral march, had Beethoven not called the movement »Allegretto«. Formally, it is a series of variations – not on a theme, but on a rhythm. The sombre minor is twice interrupted by a section in major, but even in those phases you can still hear the core rhythm in the bass. This movement had to be repeated even in the premiere, and it gained new popularity a few years ago as background music in a key scene in the Oscar-winning film »The King’s Speech«.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven in der Natur (Gemälde von Julius Schmid) © Joseph Karl Stieler / Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, the wild Scherzo is also founded entirely on the power of rhythm. The only peaceful element is the B part, which is worked in twice and which is based on an Austrian pilgrimage song. Towards the end, Beethoven includes a little joke: he pretends as if the alternation between the A and B parts will continue indefinitely – only to end the movement with some sudden, powerful blows. »As if the composer threw down his pen on the table,« as Robert Schumann put it.

Finally, the last movement looks as if it might be overwhelmed by its own dance-like energy; Beethoven’s passion for crisp rhythms and driving offbeats has intensified into excess. He often doesn’t even take the time to bridge different sections with smooth transitions. Instead, the music comes back in with a new momentum, often on unexpected levels of harmony.

Drunk or divine?

The Vienna premiere in 1813 was a huge success. Beethoven had declared the concert a benefit gala for war invalids; his »Battle Symphony: Wellington’s Victory« was also performed for the first time that night. The whole world wanted to be there for this musical celebration of Napoleon’s defeat, and so Beethoven had what must be the most distinguished orchestra line-up of all time: composers such as Antonio Salieri, Louis Spohr, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles all played in the concert. Beethoven later said »with profound emotion« that the performance had been »the ultimate in art«.

However, opinions were divided in later generations. Clara Schumann’s father Friedrich Wieck speculated that the symphony could only have been composed »in a drunken state«, and an even more sensitive Carl Maria von Weber felt that Beethoven was »ready for the asylum«. In contrast, the symphony found a willing audience in Richard Wagner. He described the work as a »glorification of the dance« – he believed Beethoven had raised the elementary power of rhythm to the level of the divine.

text: Clemens Matuschek
translation: Seiriol Dafydd

Back to the original :Jordi Savall writes about the basic principles of his Beethoven cycle

The underlying idea at the centre of our Beethoven cycle is to rediscover the original organic sound of the orchestra that Beethoven himself had in mind. This led to a whole number of preliminary considerations that inspired our new interpretation – indeed, they were an essential condition for it.

»We studied and compared both Beethoven's manuscripts and the scores and individual parts used at the first performances.«

We needed to be familiar with the existing original manuscripts in order to check all the instructions on volume and articulation. One of the crucial decisions had to do with the tempi that Beethoven calls for. To ensure that his compositions were performed as he intended, he left extremely precise metronome indications – which, as he wrote, »are often ignored to my chagrin«. Despite these instructions in the composer's own handwriting, to this day many musicians and conductors are regrettably of the opinion that they are not practicable, or even regard them as anti-artistic.

The size of the orchestra

And this in turn influences the size of the orchestra. Like Beethoven, we use a total of between 55 and 60 musicians, depending on the symphony. About two-thirds of them are members of the orchestra Le Concert des Nations, with many of these having played with us since 1989. Roughly one-third are young musicians from all over Europe and other continents who have shown in a selection procedure that they are among the best of their generation.

A characteristic feature of the orchestra is the ratio of wind instruments to strings. A contemporary reviewer wrote of the first performance of Beethoven's First Symphony on 2 April 1800 that »too much use was made of the wind instruments«. From this the French musicologist and Beethoven biographer André Boucourechliev concluded in 1963: »The balance between the different groups of instruments is often ignored in today's interpretations. The hypertrophy of the string section is one of the most stubborn tendencies of the fashion for ›symphonism‹. Many conductors translate the expression ›symphony‹ as ›orchestra with 120 players‹. Beethoven's contemporary Ignaz Moscheles, on the other hand, reported that the composer feared ›confusion‹ above all, and did not want more than 60 or so players for his symphonies.« This new balance is essential for us. That's why we decided on a similar size of orchestra to the one that Beethoven had at his disposal: a wind section numbering 18 players and 32 strings.

Restoring the energy

The secret behind Beethoven's genius is expressed in the assurance of the creative act that shines out from his works. This energy, which surprised many of his successors, was never transferrable, as the creative act often took the form of a struggle in Beethoven's case. He often had to compete with himself in order to write music.

»Beethoven's work is the result of a creative process that testifies to a new concept of art.«

The paradox we face today was already described by the conductor and musicologist René Leibowitz 40 years ago. He reminds the reader of »the privileged place that Beethoven occupies in the world of music«, as is regularly confirmed to this day by opinion surveys and performance statistics. And continues: »It is tempting to deduce from this that audiences and musicians alike possess a deep awareness of the musical values that have found one of their highest expressions in Beethoven's work. However, we then arrive inevitably at the thought that there is something disturbing about Beethoven. There is possibly no other composer who has so continually been the victim of incorrect and incongruent traditions of interpretation. Traditions that go so far as to distort and hide the entire meaning of works – works that enjoy immense popularity. People seem to be worshipping something that they only know through distortions, and they systematically distort what they worship.«

Our research and the interpretation based on it take all these underlying questions into account – not for their own sake, but in order to achieve our primary aim. Our aim is to restore the energy to the Beethoven symphonies, which are so well-known, and are performed much too often in oversized and overloaded versions. The result of our efforts is a revolutionary brilliance, articulation, balance and tonal strength, and a dramaturgy borne by the spiritual power of its own message. This revolutionary power produces a permanent state of alertness in the creative mind, in which the youthfulness of these works is never exhausted.

Text: Jordi Savall
translation: Clive Williams

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