The movement titles and specific birdcalls of the ’Pastoral’ Symphony are about as explicit as Beethoven got when it came to noting down ’meanings’ for his major works. The man who first realised the symphony’s universal expressive potentialities in the ’Eroica’, and for whom extra-musical inspirations formed an important part of his creative thinking, was usually happy to let his music do the talking – ’the listener should be able to discover the situations himself’, he wrote on sketches for the ’Pastoral’. And while few could deny that the ’Eroica’ seems to embody a sense of rebirth, or that the Fifth marks out some kind of journey from darkness to light, the composer left no actual clues that he thought of them thus. It is the music which communicates these things so strongly that we feel we understand them.
Compared to the above symphonies, the Seventh is a little harder to pin down. The rhythms which dominate each one of its movements have given rise to one oft-quoted appraisal: Wagner’s description of it as ’the apotheosis of the dance’. But could that not equally well be said of a Bach Suite? And by the time it has ended, has the Seventh Symphony not expressed a purer and freer form of euphoria than might primarily be associated with dancing? The modern Beethoven scholar David Wyn Jones has suggested that in this work Beethoven set himself the challenge of moulding a ’continuous, cumulative celebration of joy’, and this seems a more accurate assessment than Wagner’s. Yet even then, how exactly does the melancholy second movement fit in?