Bell describes Beethoven’s 4th and 7th symphonies as joyful music, in contrast to the cliché of the composer as primarily gloomy and intense.
Joshua Bell: Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies have a certain amount in common. Well of course they’re both written by Beethoven but besides that, I would say their overall effect and idea is to provide the listener with an incredible sense of joy. Most people think of Beethoven as the conductor shaking his fist at the world, you know, the tormented Beethoven’s fifth symphony, you know, and there’s plenty of that in these pieces. But these pieces are very much came from a place of joy.
And there’s no better example I think of all of music of this celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of the human spirit than in the seventh symphony for sure. And in the fourth symphony, it’s perhaps a slightly more innocent sense in the four symphony. It’s just a - there’s a spirit of fun and joy that’s maybe unparalleled in any of the other symphonies of Beethoven as well.
So the seventh symphony is one that I think I know the best as far as growing up with it. It was my first big symphony I fell in love with, the seventh. It was my mother’s favorite. She played it a lot on the record player when they used to have records. And that symphony is - even Beethoven loved that symphony of his own symphony. He thought that was one of his greatest works. And this slow moment of that is the crown jewel of it, and maybe of all the symphonies. It’s - when it was premiered it was actually - it’s hard to imagine now the way symphony concerts work but at the time there is so much applause after that movement that they had to repeat the movement again in the premiere, which is by the way exactly 200 years ago this year, the premiere of the seventh symphony.
They had to actually play it over again because the audience wouldn't stop clapping. And in fact people often even sometimes replaced other symphonies of Beethoven with their slow movement, with the second movement of the seventh symphony 'cause it was so beloved, another thing that we can’t imagine ever happening today. But anyway the slow movement there is the exception to the joy of the rest of the movement because it’s the most perfect example of expression of grief and lament, I would say, but in a way that’s not over-the-top, not tearing at your heartstrings with just a beautiful melody. It’s not, as much as I love Tchaikovsky’s, it’s not that kind of lament.
It’s something so deep and hits your soul so strongly in such a subtle way without banging you over the head with it that it goes directly to your soul in a way that’s just remarkable.
People have heard these pieces hundreds of times perhaps. Anyone who knows classical music and loves classical music has heard the Beethoven seventh hundreds of times probably in their life. It’s interesting about classical music that the more you hear something, the more you get to know a piece, the better and better it gets, period, which is just an interesting thing on it. So I can’t think it was a movie, a film that I would want to see more than once maybe twice if it’s a great film. Maybe a few times, but there’s something about classical music because - perhaps because it’s so abstract and you don’t get tired of it and yet you find more and more in it.
And so the retelling of these stories, you might say, of these symphonies, is something that we can bear over and over again. But new interpretations - I mean there’s so many ways to create a phrase in so many ways to - I actually saw something on YouTube the other day, somebody compiled the first two bars of the third symphony, the Eroica Symphony, which are these two great crashing chords, bum, bum. And then it starts the piece [MUSIC] that’s the third - this compilation was just the first two bars of these two big chords.
But he compiled like 50 versions, one after another. And just from those two chords, the amount of variety of the way people approach it was so incredible that it had to make you smile, just how different each conductor, each orchestra can approach these two chords, which you think how different could they be. So that just shows that there’s, it’s infinite amount of ways to create it.
So basically my approach is not to be different from anybody else. That’s, I think, the fundamentally wrong way to approach any music, just to be different because you think people are tired of the way of hearing it told. You’re really looking for the truth of what the piece is about. And that’s going to be different for different people.
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd