Music in the big picture

Posted on: 10 May 2020, by :

The second movement, Allegretto, of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92, is the choice for my third post in the big tune series.

Today, it is probably the most widely loved example of Beethoven’s music because of its special place in modern popular culture, having been featured in at least nine movies, including, most recently, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and The King’s Speech (2010). In those various appropriations, the music is severely trimmed down (typically only the first few minutes of the movement is heard) and glossed with a new or imagined meaning when superimposed on the film and its scene. The only factor that is more-or-less common to all those instances is that the music will, to many people, sound profoundly ‘sad’ and feel ‘tragic’ or doom-laden: the few opening minutes alone are enough to convey the inevitability of the march of time and stir our emotions deeply, to the point of tears. It helps that the music will be imagined to be a funeral march, especially at its loud climax when the trumpets punctuate the sound like the tolling of a bell.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer, in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, January 2014.

Extract from The King’s Speech (2010). The actual speech of George VI, broadcast 3 September 1939, may be heard here.

Its use in The King’s Speech, for the scene of 3 September 1939 when George VI spoke live over the radio to all the nations of the British Empire at the outbreak of the Second World War, is particularly effective: the slow crescendo in the music coincides with the halting oratorical growth in the speech itself and with the heavy realization that the war will become terrible and long before it will ever be over. (Here, we’ll overlook the complex questions that arise from the startling choice of this beloved German music for a British scene in which Germany is the great enemy to be faced.)

But is the music really as sad or tragic as it must seem from those instances when it is taken out of its normal context and cut short? Surely not: we need only to listen a little further, beyond the opening minutes, to the second tune (it occurs twice, in this video at 18:17 and 22:08). In this part that the movie-makers reject, we hear instead notions of optimism or a new dawning, or even contentment in Beethoven’s best post-French-Revolution brotherhood-of-man mode. Moreover, the Seventh is the most apparently joyful one of all his symphonies, and the second movement may be seen in that light rather than in isolation. Wagner called the whole symphony ‘the apotheosis of the dance’: movements 1, 2 and 4 are markedly upbeat with dance-like energy. The Allegretto is not out of step with that conclusion since a march is also a dance of sorts, and this one has a pavan-like rhythm too.

Beethoven composed the symphony from 1811, completing it in April 1812. Although at that time Vienna, where he resided, was not enjoying a particularly happy time (in 1809 the Austrians had been defeated again by Napoleon, and Vienna’s economy collapsed in 1811) the composer himself appears to have been happily and hopefully in love. In early July 1812, shortly after finishing the symphony, he wrote the famous unsent loveletter addressed to his ‘immortal beloved’, a woman whose identity still remains unproven (details here).

The sadness in this music, if that is what we hear, does not last long in the whole scheme, and is replaced. If there is a message, it is one of hope and resilience: that recovery, reconciliation and good times will follow the bad times. It’s a message that has a special poignancy this week, when Europe remembers the end of the war 75 years ago. The king’s speech in 1939 was a beginning; the speech this week by the Federal President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (text in translation here), was a superb ending.