Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reading Beethoven's 5th

Nothing says "classical music" quite like Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C minor. It is probably the most popular and easily recognizable of all symphonies. It is also the subject of a lot of controversy, ranging from differences of interpretation to textual questions (e.g., should the 3rd movement have a repeat sign or not?). But even though it is vastly overplayed, Beethoven's 5th continues to evoke revolutionary associations in listeners' minds. Not only was it a landmark in the career of a fiercely original artist; it was also a piece that, in many ways, captured the essence of Beethoven's courageous, strong-willed character.

Movement I begins with two loud, sustained announcements of a now-famous four-note motto (dit-dit-dit-dah). As to this motto, myths and misconceptions abound. For instance, the rumor that these four notes represent "fate knocking at the door" comes from rather unreliable sources. A more trustworthy witness claims that Beethoven was inspired by the song of a yellowhammer. The latter interpretation would seem to be supported by Beethoven's metronome markings, which indicate a much faster tempo than the movement is customarily played. I have heard David Robertson suggest that this tempo discrepancy is partly the result of generations of conductors vying to outdo each other in the seriousness and dramatic gravitas of their interpretations. Robertson hints that a more authentic approach would reveal a sonata movement of almost comical lightness.

The key four-note motif is expanded, at first hesitantly, into a full-blown theme before a loud horn call ushers in a soft, graceful second theme in E-flat major. Even during this lighter passage, however, the four-note motto throbs in the background, and comes back for a big, extroverted codetta. The development section is quite short, leading to a recap remarkable mainly for a surprising, cadenza-like oboe solo. A brief coda brings this brief but highly concentrated movement to an end.

Movement II is a slow set of variations on a binary theme (or, as some would have it, double variations on two alternating themes). The first part of the theme is dignified and lyrical; the second part is more strident. As in the variations at the end of the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven lets the middle of the movement drift off into a kind of free development of the first part of the theme, and extends the last variation into a coda that seems reluctant to let go.

Movement III is a scherzo that alternates between a low, ominous theme (based on the theme of the finale of Mozart's 40th) and a loud, threatening theme which, coincidentally, also has a dit-dit-dit-dah rhythm (only, unlike the motive of the first movement, it starts on an accented note). This theme actually makes a more credible candidate for the "fate knocking at the door" theory. Editors of the score, and subsequently conductors, are in disagreement as to whether there should be a repeat sign after the contrapuntal trio section. The repeat was in Beethoven's autograph score, but not in the original published edition (which may represent the composer's "final wishes"). Repeat or no, the movement ends with a version of the opening section of the scherzo, re-scored for soft winds and pizzicato strings, which then extends into a spooky bridge passage that leads, without a break, to Movement IV.

The Finale is a sonata in a radiant C major. The big crescendo leading out of the bridge passage to this movement's triumphant first theme may remind one of the sun surging out from behind a dark, stormy cloud. The movement's exuberance hardly slackens until the end of the development, when - shockingly, if not disturbingly - a soft version of the dit-dit-dit-dah theme from Movement III forces its way in. This last spectre of anxiety is a rather ghastly touch, so close to the end of what had seemed to be a musical statement about adversity being swallowed up in victory. But then it leads once again to that wonderful sunrise-crescendo and the full-bodied rejoicing of the recap. And again, like Eroica, this symphony closes with a long coda that super-emphatically asserts the C major tonic, lest there be any doubt in the listener's mind after the journey Beethoven has led you through.

IMAGES: Top - Beethoven in 1810, two years after the premiere of his 5th Symphony; Bottom - Beethoven's writing desk. EDIT: Here is a classic comedy routine featuring Sid Caesar, Nanette Fabray, and the first movement of Beethoven's 5th:

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