At its première, Beethoven was noted as remarking that it was one of his best works. The second movement, Allegretto, was the most popular movement and had to be encored. The instant popularity of the Allegretto resulted in its frequent performance separate from the complete symphony.
The work was premiered with Beethoven himself conducting in Vienna on 8 December 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. In Beethoven's address to the participants, the motives are openly named: "We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us."
The piece was very well received, and the second movement, the Allegretto, had to be encored immediately. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven's antics on the rostrum ("as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder ... at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air"), and the concert was repeated due to its immense success.
Performance time lasts approximately 40 minutes. The work as a whole is known for its use of rhythmic devices suggestive of a dance, such as dotted rhythm and repeated rhythmic figures. It is also tonally subtle, making use of the tensions between the key centres of A, C and F. For instance, the first movement is in A major but has repeated episodes in C major and F major. In addition, the second movement is in A minor with episodes in A major, and the third movement, a scherzo, is in F major.
The first movement starts with a long, expanded introduction marked Poco sostenuto (metronome mark: quarter=69) that is noted for its long ascending scales and a cascading series of applied dominants that facilitates modulations to C major and F major. From the last episode in F major, the movement transitions to Vivace through a series of no fewer than sixty-one repetitions of the note E. The Vivace (dotted quarter=104) is in sonata form, and is dominated by lively dance-like rhythms (such as dotted rhythms), sudden dynamic changes, and abrupt modulations. In particular, the development section opens in C major and contains extensive episodes in F major. The movement finishes with a long coda, which starts similarly as the development section. The coda contains a famous twenty-bar passage consisting of a two-bar motif repeated ten times to the background a grinding four octave deep Pedal pointof an E. The critic and composer Carl Maria von Weber took particular exception to this (see below).
The second movement in A minor has a tempo marking of Allegretto (a little lively), making it slow only in comparison to the other three movements. This movement was encored at the premiere and has remained popular since. The ostinato (repeated rhythmic figure) of a quarter note, two eighth notes and two quarter notes is heard repeatedly. This movement is structured in a double variation form. The movement begins with the main melody played by the violas and cellos. This melody is then played by the second violins while the violas and cellos play a second, but equally important melody, a melody described by George Grove as "a string of beauties hand-in-hand". Then, the first violins take the first melody while the second violins take the second. This progression culminates with the wind section playing the first melody while the first violin plays the second. After this climax, the music changes from A minor to A major as the clarinets take a calmer melody to the background of light triplets played by the violins. This section ends thirty-seven bars later with a quick descent of the strings on an A minor scale, and the first melody is resumed and elaborated upon in a strict fugato.
The last movement is in sonata form, the coda of which contains an example, rare in Beethoven's music, of the dynamic marking ƒƒƒ (called forte fortissimo orfortississimo). In his book Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (1896), Sir George Grove wrote, "The force that reigns throughout this movement is literally prodigious, and reminds one of Carlyle's hero Ram Dass, who has 'fire enough in his belly to burn up the entire world.' " Donald Tovey, writing in his Essays in Musical Analysis, commented on this movement's "Bacchic fury" and many other writers have commented on its whirling dance-energy: the main theme vaguely resembles Beethoven's arrangement of the Irish folk-song SAVE me from the grave and wise", No. 8 of his Twelve Irish Folk Songs, WoO 154.
Critics and listeners have often felt stirred or inspired by the Seventh Symphony. For instance, one program-note author writes:
... the final movementZIPS along at an irrepressible pace that threatens to sweep the entire orchestra off its feet and around the theater, caught up in the sheer joy of performing one of the most perfect symphonies ever written.
The Seventh Symphony perhaps more than any of the others gives us a feeling of true spontaneity; the notes seem to fly off the page as we are borne along on a floodtide of inspiredINVENTION. Beethoven himself spoke of it fondly as "one of my best works". Who are we to dispute his judgment?
Another admirer, Richard Wagner, referring to the lively rhythms which permeate the work, called it the "apotheosis of the dance".
On the other hand, admiration for the work has not been universal. Friedrich Wieck, who was present during rehearsals, said that the consensus, among musicians and laymen alike, was that Beethoven must have composed the symphony in a drunken state. Carl Maria von Weber considered the chromatic bass line in the coda of the first movement evidence that Beethoven was "ripe for the madhouse", and the conductor Thomas Beecham commented on the fourth movement: "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about."