A brief essay on Beethoven’s Fifth
By Jay Windsor 04/24/2014
It’s unfathomable, if you think about it. You’re irascible, cranky and slovenly. You can’t keep housekeepers because, given your nature, they quit after a week or so. You’re losing your hearing. What few friends you have are afraid to visit. So one morning in 1804 you wake up and write four notes that are almost all the same — short-short-short-LONG. You think to yourself, “Hmmm, interesting.” So you put in a brief pause, and repeat those notes almost the same way, with just a very minor change to the last note — short-short-short-LONG.
Beethoven worked on “Symphony No. 5 in C minor” for four years — give or take —before its debut in Vienna. It would become a piece of music performed worldwide for more than 200 years.
There was other stuff going on in his life at the time, but he returned to it again and again until it was just right. (It happens. Some things take . . . time.)
After those first eight notes, it gets elegant and lovely for a little while. The same theme from those first notes are present like an old dream. This is when you can briefly close your eyes and enjoy the amazing instrumentation, for a little while. But even through the soft passages there is a tension building. A certain something is going on, easy to hear but impossible to describe. Just listen. It’s a reverie.
In the middle movements there are magisterial moments of beauty but also a certain, mysterious sort of danger. Think sitting next to a beautiful woman in a bar who is quietly getting drunk, and maybe even a little angry. Elizabeth Taylor entertaining Richard Burton on their third date. That kind of thing. It could go really well or it could go horribly wrong in a savage way. There’s no way to know what Beethoven might do next, or what that woman might be thinking. It’s all up to the gods. The music of the spheres. At this point in the symphony, it’s quite natural to wonder, “What the bleep is going on, here?”
Then, in the last movement, all hell breaks loose. If you ever experience it performed live by an orchestra, you will see the violinists and cellists begin to perspire heavily. The horn players will get red in the face, blowing for all they’re worth. It’s a cacophony of rapturous noise, building and building and building. (If you’re not squirming in your seat, something is horribly wrong.) And then, it ends. You will be breathless. Every repeated listening will bring new surprises. It’s a masterpiece for the ages.
Asked about those first four notes, years later, Beethoven allegedly replied, “It’s fate, knocking on the door.”
The New West Symphony will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67, on April 25 and 26 at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center and the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, respectively. For tickets and additional information, visit www.newwestsymphony.org.
Jay Windsor is a lover of fine music, strong drink and the lost art of letter writing. He’s also an occasional contributor to VCReporter.