To Dance Upon the Abyss: On Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

Tonight is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of their current run of Beethoven’s Seventh, under the baton of the precise and passionate Bernard Haitink. If you can, you should go.

Though not his greatest symphony, I think Beethoven’s Seventh his best. What comes to mind is something like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in comparison to Hamlet. The Ninth Symphony is unsurpassed in its range, but the dramatic coherence and unrelenting drive of the Seventh is equally unsurpassed.

Beethoven’s is the name presiding over Symphony Hall, and this performance reminds us why.

As with, say, his Ninth or Mahler’s First, we hear a cosmogony in the Seventh, but here everything is telescoped into the propulsion of a relentless providence. All that love and life must overcome is presented indirectly through the tension of the dance. It is the revelation of the providential rhythm playing in cosmogony and historiogenesis. And in that revelation is the joy.

My father did not have an extensive LP collection, but he did own a vinyl record of the Seventh. Years after his death, I opened up the turntable, in junior high or high school, and started listening to classical music intentionally for the first time. This symphony has been with me from the beginning. Listening to it decades later, after having listened to it through so many different circumstances of life but not having done so in a long time, and in this magnificent interpretation by Haitink and the BSO, it was indeed ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. The tears just kept coming throughout the first movement.

If you can hear your life and the strains of the world together in this music, joie de vivre will be rekindled in you. You will hear the call of the dove over the waters of chaos. You will feel the surging movement the Spirit inspires so that life may ascend despite titanic undertows.

The massive four-minute introduction to the symphony and to the first movement starts with an immense chord that contains everything that follows (again, much different from the Ninth, which has us wait for providence to unfold itself). It is joy, joy, joy that keeps climbing and singing mightily, and in that power and rhythm of life, you feel all the darkness that has ever had to be endured. But you feel it in the mode of its being overcome.

When the vivace takes over from the introduction with the eruption of an impossibly exuberant tutti infused with a fiddling Scottish jig, you are raptured into one of the most heart-filling passages in all of music. The whole first movement is the tension of real joy, the rhythm and lift of a grace more invincible than any drag of hell.

And the symphony never really lets up from there. The familiar second movement, for instance, begins (in a way that obviously inspired Mahler deeply) with a funereal rhythm that builds towards ecstatic triumph.

Be happy without being escapist: listen to this music. Remember, in your dancing bones and in your thumping heart, that the arc of the world beats time to the wings of the dove, and that every abyss is encompassed by the ever-greater depths and heights of divine love.

[Here's a link to a wonderful performance:]