Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guide to a Tonal Analysis of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony

Excerpts – including a quasi-analytical reduction in musical notation – from a lecture given by Mark Lindley on April 15th, 2008 at Bilkent University. The reduction of the first movement was played on a piano and was followed visually by the students while hearing simultaneously a recording of a proper orchestral performance.

In a four-movement symphony, there is a certain problem of overall construction that is easy to describe. The second and third movements – the slow one and the light one after it – have their obviously distinctive roles. But then what about the fourth movement? How is its character to be distinguished sufficiently from that of the first one? How can it be given a distinctively and convincingly “final” character (which the last movement of a multi-movement 18th-century sinfonia introducing an opera didn’t have to have)? Will it just be another big piece that is neither slow nor a minuet or scherzo?

Some familiar partial solutions to this problem are to start the first movement, but not the last one, with a slow introductory section, and/or to give the last movement an easier-to-follow formal structure by making it a rondo. However, in Beethoven’s 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies, there are special ways in which the last movement is distinguished in character from the first: in the 5th, by dramatically introducing major mode in the last movement (vs minor in the first); in the 6th, by the depiction of a storm (and joyous calm afterwards) in the last movement (vs cheerfulness throughout the first movement); in the 9th, by a man standing up and declaring, “Enough of this merely instrumental music; let us sing!…” And, Beethoven devised in the 7th symphony a unique tonal strategy for giving the last movement its special, “final” character.

This involved giving a privileged role to the key of F-major in a work in A-major. That role is adumbrated in bars 7-9 of the introduction to the first movement. But since F-natural is not in the diatonic A-major scale, it has to compete for eminence, throughout the work, with F-sharp; and this is adumbrated by the salient F-sharps in the tune in Bars 2 and 4 of the introduction.

In the second movement, the initial version of the theme favors F-sharp (even though the movement is in A-minor, not A-major). Then the third movement is in F major, yet with the intermediate cadence in its first part on A- rather than on C-major, and with a middle section in D-major and thus emphasizing F-sharp again. This equivocation between F and F-sharp is brought to the fore at the end of the movement where a D-major triad yields to a D-minor triad for the sake of vi-ii-V-I progression in F. And then the F leads down a semitone to the much-emphasized V of the last movement – which would be simply too noisy if it weren’t for the tonally dramatic return from F to E.

“In terms of the very broad kind of melodic analysis (of Western classical compositions) developed in the 1920s and 30s by the distinguished Viennese music theorist Heinrich Schenker,” all those important F’s and F-sharps, heard as alternative melodic neighbors to E, serve to “prolong” it as the 5th degree of the scale of A; so – and this is the most remarkable thing – a “single overarching five-note descent”. (E-D-C#-B-A) spans all four movements. This fact is signaled by long chord at the beginning of the second movement: an A-minor chord but with E in the bass as well as in the tune.*

* Schenker found a somewhat analogous but less elaborate kind of relationship, spanning all three movements of the “Appassionata” Sonata (Opus 54, whereas the 7th Symphony is Opus 92), between Db and C in F-minor. See especially p. 55 in Vol. II of the English translation (Oxford 2005) of Der Tonwille.