The Seventh

The Third is heroic.

The Fifth is iconic.

The Ninth is a miracle.

But of all the Nine symphonies, my favorite has always been the Seventh. I don’t know why exactly. It just appealed to me immediately, the rhythms and melodies, the energy pulsing through yet not overwhelming. More subtle than the others, yet somehow truer to itself.

And there is a joy that runs through it, different from the Ode to Joy of the Ninth, more self-contained and pure, especially in the Allegretto, the second movement. You can hear something similar sometimes in Bach and Mozart. I don’t know what it is. But I think of it as the joy of a master engaged only in the work.

Just vague impressions I know.

Hard to explain.

How do you judge a symphony?  Or greatness? Or art?

Mozart and Shakespeare are at the top for me. Old Bach is not far behind. Michelangelo perhaps belongs near. And somewhere not too far down the list is Beethoven.

To some extent, maybe a great extent, it is a personal decision. You could break it down into categories I suppose. Originality. Breadth of expression. Depth of emotion. Uniqueness. Capacity.

But in saying that the Seventh is my favorite, I am not really judging it. I’m just expressing a preference. Though somewhere down deep maybe there is little difference, since judgement has to be based on something, and if you go far enough down there are likely personal choices supporting whatever criteria you elect. 

So I was delighted today, listening to it on the radio, when the announcer noted that the Seventh was Beethoven’s favorite too. When asked why it was not as well-known as the others, Beethoven reportedly said: “Because it’s better.”

Who am I to argue with the master?

(Image: A Beethoven Enthusiast by Moriz Jung. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


848 Hits


Some months ago I took a job with a fairly long commute, about an hour each way. In the morning on the way in to work, I listen to the news (and the traffic reports). In the evening, I turn on WETA – 90.9 FM - the publicly supported classical music station in Washington DC.

I have enjoyed classical music since high school, when my amazing choir teacher Henry  Benedict introduced us to English madrigals, Bach motets, and Palestrina Masses (I wonder how often current students have this opportunity). From there I went on to studying voice and giving the occasional classical recital between more frequent ventures into musical theater. But until my job change, most of my recent forays into classical music were occasional late night explorations of YouTube (a musical treasure trove).

It’s a little different listening to classical music on the radio. The programming consists of drive-time selections (though I have not figured out the selection process), nothing too long, or too bizarre, well-known classical pieces from the 18th and 19th century, heavy one the B’s (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven), interspersed with some well-chosen earlier and later works from Byrd to Bernstein.  And though I am pretty familiar with some of the works, hearing them one after another, day after day, has been enlightening.

I have been struck by a few recent realizations. I am amazed at the extraordinary number of talented musicians from all parts of the world, the brilliant composers I have never heard of, the seemingly inexhaustible variety of composition and tonality.

But over and above the things, I am conscious of how lucky we are to have these works available everyday everywhere.  Three hundred years ago these experiences were reserved for kings and princes (except those you could hear in church). Two hundred years ago, it was usually the wealthy who could afford such performances. One hundred years ago, recordings were few and far between.

But now – who could count the number and variety of performances available in the air and online? Well, maybe Google – there are as I write 220,000,000 hits for the words musical performance. 

When the aliens come back and attempt to determine our greatest achievement as a species, I think music, specifically classical music, may be at the top of the human hit parade. 

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