December 22, 2008

Hear Again: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor.

On Thursday, December 22, Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honour to give a musical concert in the Royal Imperial Theater an der Wien. All the pieces are of his own composition, are entirely new, and have not yet been heard in public.

Two hundred years ago today, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) premiered his Fifth Symphony, one of the most popular and widely recognised pieces of European classical music. Its four-note — three short, one long — opening motif is frequently referenced in music, film, television, and was even used by the BBC during the Second World War as the call sign of all of its European services, evoking the Morse code for the letter "V" — as in "victory". But its premiere was far from successful, and the reception of the Fifth in particular far from rapturous.

One of the reasons was that the Viennese fortunate enough to have spied the inconspicuous concert announcement in the December 17 issue of
Wiener Zeitung (bottom right) found themselves freezing in an unheated Theater an der Wien from half past six to half past ten on the evening of December 22, all the while enduring the (rather loud) public debut of not only the Fifth but also the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, excerpts form the Mass in C Major, a concert aria, and some piano improvisations.

Being a freelance composer, without reliable employment, Beethoven lacked not only the funds with which to provide the venue with heating, but also adequate rehearsal time for the performers. Which inevitably led to a break down: the Choral Fantasy, conceived as the evening's showstopper, ground to a halt following a mistake, at which point the conducting composer decided to try it once again, from the top, prolonging the proceedings even further. Due to encroaching deafness, caused by severe tinnitus, the untoward spectacle also turned out to be Beethoven's last public appearance as a pianist.

He had begun composing the
Fifth — his first minor-key symphony — in 1804, while still living in the very theatre building where it later premiered. It consists of four separate movements, though there's no break between the third and the final movement. The famous motif supposedly permeates the entire piece — though scholars viciously disagree whether this is intentional or sheer fluke. The motif itself isn't entirely original; it can be heard in Haydn's Symphony No. 96, or in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, seemingly a common part of the musical language among Beethoven's older contemporaries.

Beethoven was particularly influenced by Mozart, and modeled a number of his own compositions on Mozart's works; the two may in fact have met briefly in Vienna during Beethoven's first short visit there in 1787. In fact, the similarities extend beyond the famous motif: the
Fifth's third movement introduces a theme similar — though in a different key — to the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. (This was first pointed out by Gustav Nottebohm, who discovered 29 measures of Mozart's finale copied out by Beethoven in a notebook used while composing the Fifth.)

Working on several pieces simultaneously, Beethoven often ended up with overlap in his material. Hence the famous motif of the
Fifth is rhythmically similar to the opening of the Fourth Piano Concerto, the transition between the Fifth's third and the final movement was first used in the Sixth Symphony (completed prior to the Fifth), with similarities appearing even in the Fourth Symphony. What is original about the Fifth is its immediacy and efficiency, particularly in the implementation of that much knocked about motif.

As to what it all means, there's very little agreement. The most popular interpretation, championed by Beethoven's fabulating factotum Anton Schindler, has the motif representing "fate knocking on the door". On the other hand Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny claimed the motif was inspired by a
Yellowhammer's song, heard during a stroll in Vienna's Prater Park. More recently it has been suggested that the motif might be derived from Beethoven's favourite contemporary composer Luigi Cherubini's Hymne au Panthéon. Considering the events during which the Fifth Symphony was written, it's perhaps not surprising that the "fate" interpretation is the one which has won the most supporters.

In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte was practically Master of Europe, threatened only by Russia, Great Britain, and the rise of European nationalism which he inadvertently facilitated. As an admirer of the French Revolution's ideals, Beethoven had initially been a supporter of the French leader, but was disappointed when Bonaparte turned to imperialism and crowned himself Emperor. To Beethoven's romantic contemporaries it clearly was much more appealing to imagine the
Fifth heralding fate itself knocking on the door to give Bonaparte a well-deserved kick in the pants, rather than something the composer had overheard a bird knocking out in the local park.

A major obstacle for the listener is the lack of an authoritative version of the piece. The composer isn't around to conduct, so what's on offer is somebody else's interpretation, and in the case of a piece as popular as the
Fifth, those interpretations differ wildly. In terms of tempo, Arturo Toscanini probably still holds the speed record set in 1945, at 26 minutes and 45 seconds — no doubt contributing to his somewhat unwarranted reputation as the speed racer of classical music. At the slower end there's Otto Klemperer, who managed to stretch "his" Fifth over 40 minutes on at least two occasions — once for a 1959 recording, and again during a 1969 performance.

For most listeners, recordings rather than live performances are the primary source of exposure to the
Fifth, but the array currently available — at least 80 different versions since the piece was first recorded in 1913 by Artúr Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic — can be daunting even to the initiated. The most commonplace recordings are probably those of the Nazi opportunist Herbert von Karajan, perhaps the most tyrannical, reviled, yet lavishly rewarded conductor in history. (Far from a profound musician, Karajan appears mostly celebrated for being enormously successful and enormously rich, shunning creativity and turning music into a luxury consumer item.)

The classical music beginner may as well turn to
Carlos Kleiber, a virtually invisible, self-effacing, content conductor, worth only a fraction of Karajan's reputed C$ 180 million fortune. Kleiber's 1974 recording of the Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is as good a starting point as any. Another option could be one of the period-instrument versions, which utilise smaller orchestras, lower tunings, and less powerful instruments, in order to recreate a performance that Beethoven's audience of two centuries ago could recognise. A good starting point among these is The Hanover Band's fairly leisurely recording from 1983.

Keeping in mind that the premiere essentially was an exercise in sight-reading and sub-zero endurance, few contemporary performances — whether live or recorded — of Beethoven's
Fifth can be said to lack distinction, polish, interpretive feeling, sensitivity, or warmth in comparison.

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