In the last couple of days, a number of people have asked me to seek out some music which will serve to silence any ugly triumphalism (happily not too much) as well as soothe those who have been shocked by recent events: it is quite a tall order, but one man comes to the rescue. And no, it is not Elgar. Despite a wealth of talented British composers, it is slightly surprising that there is no obvious piece of music among them which, in my view, can reconcile these two very opposing emotions.
Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and as you read this, some of you are now going to be saying ‘Oh, he’s going for the last movement of the 9th’; but that would be tactless and only fuel the triumphant cause, since it is well known to be the European anthem. The second movement of his seventh symphony, however, used in countless films over the years (most recently and famously in ‘The King’s Speech’), fulfills the brief. It is not a slow movement, as was then conventional, but only slower than the one before and two after it: it is marked ‘Allegretto’, which means slightly lively. The symphony, with which Beethoven was himself well pleased, was composed around 1812, and first performed in 1813 infront of wounded Viennese soldiers. Beethoven conducted it, despite being almost totally deaf, telling those taking part that “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism”, and this particular movement had to be repeated on the night, before Beethoven was allowed to continue with the rest of the symphony.
Apart from having a few beautiful melodies, it is the steady building of the different parts which serves to make this a really stirring piece of music. Some people think it is sad – I do not agree. It is certainly moving and soothing, but also, I would argue, optimistic and forward-looking: feelings which I think both sides of the latest argument could do well to embrace. Imagine it in its original context and see if you can apply it to a similar division some two hundred years later. It is both healing and uplifting at the same time.
I don’t know if it’s just my reading of this, but as it closes, I sense we are left with something of a question mark in its final notes, which only affirms its appropriateness as I make this post. But if it’s any consolation, Richard Wagner referred to this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”, which will give you the strongest hint of how that question is answered. The two movements which follow are filled with some of the most joyful music ever written by Beethoven; but in the meantime, if you feel urged to want to hear this passage again, you will not be the first. Soothing, healing, uplifting: it’s what we all need just now.