210 Years. A Musical Monument.

Three days before Christmas. December 22, 1808 – Vienna.

The first performance of what may be indisputably, the most memorable musical monument ever created. Half way into what was by all accounts, a seat squirming four-hour concert programme, the first four notes, in a four-movement symphony freed – and for two hundred and ten years, it still instantly arrests our ears. 

“No one could remember all of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from a single hearing, but neither could one ever again hear those first four notes as just four notes! Once a tiny scrap of sound, these four notes have become a known thing – a locus in the web of all the other things we know and whose meanings and significances depend on one another.”

Marvin Minsky – Music, Mind, and Meaning

Computer Music Journal, 1981

For the purpose of this anniversary celebration, this is the only one observation I have chosen to lift out of the countless pieces of analysis, critiques and accolades written about the famous Fifth. One could easily become an addicted academic on this one work alone. Never mind the fact that since 1808, there have been countless concerts around the world of this work (my favourite at Royal Albert Hall) and of course, volumes of recordings.

My collection of recordings include three versions, each of which have different interpretations.

  • David Josefowitz, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra 1959
  • Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 1963
  • Michael Tilson Thomas, English Chamber Orchestra 1983

It is at the point now, that “the Fifth” (which is all you have say without even mentioning the name Beethoven), is one of those works that seems to have always been and always will be – a locus in the web of all the other things as Minsky says. All other things – such as movies, Bugs Bunny cartoons, TV commercials and other promotional pieces. Is all this a sincere form of flattery that Beethoven would have appreciated considering the reaction to the first performance was not that uniformly received?

Well, that was only a blip in the Beethoven cycle. Recently I viewed a 2016 BBC documentary – The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that shed a new light (at least for me) on the opus 67. Ian Hislop and conductor John Eliot Gardiner give a wonderful background narrative on how, as Gardiner believes, “the music expresses Beethoven’s belief in the French Revolution. This is turbulent music from a turbulent man living in a turbulent age.”

The Fifth is an icon of longevity in spite of the fact that some would say it is too – overplayed. No such thing. If you can, maybe today at year’s end, block out all other audio and visual over-stimulation in this our own turbulent age. Allow yourself to listen to the whole symphony, by a full moon lighting the dark, (coincidently December 22 this year) – or however and wherever you like.

Be transported.

“What will be the judgment a century hence concerning the lorded works of our favorite composers today? In as much as nearly everything is subject to the changes of time, and – more’s the pity- the fashions of time, only that which is good and true will endure like a rock…For life is short, art eternal.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

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