Friday, January 11, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #5

If you are interested in starting up a collection of solid classical music, you probably should start by buying all of Beethoven's symphonies, and the first one I suggest you spend time on is his 5th.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #5
Symphony #6, "Pastoral"
Deutsche Grammophon, 1984
It is the most accessible of his symphonies to anyone new to classical music. Everyone recognizes the four-note opening theme. Beethoven's 5th is a textbook example of the symphonic form (some would say it represents the utter perfection of the symphonic form). And, at about 25 minutes in running time, it won't strain your attention span.

I've probably listened to this symphony at least 200 times, and I've performed it as well. And I still get emotional listening to it. Listen for the triumphal sections about one minute into the second movement, as well as the soft woodwind and strings sections towards the very end of the second movement. And listen for the overwhelming french horn parts early on in the third movement where they restate the opening theme of the first movement. And of course listen for the third movement to fade softly away--and then suddenly blast off into the fourth movement in one of the most gripping and triumphant passages in all of classical music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not having spent much time listening to Beethoven as opposed to more romantic and melodic composers such as Mozart and Bach, I trekked out this weekend to absorb and comprehend Beethoven's 5th. I had a TimeLife "Great Composers" series CD with the 5th and 6th on it, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, so I made this my convenient target. It took just a very short amount of listening before I quickly fell into what I will call my 'Beethoven Dilemma' - the firepower of the piece is quick, loud, and repetitive. The themes are heroic, with mighty chords of symphomic power pounding at maximum loudness. But the dilemma for me is... how did I get here? What did I walk into? I had the feeling I had swung open the door to a grand celebration, one that I didnt understand, that I was trespassing upon. It's a feeling I couldnt get beyond, so I listened to the entire piece a second time, and then a third. I couldnt shake this sense of being just an observer, not a particpant. In desperation, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a personal scene of triumph. In typical adolescent manner, I pictured myself trotting around the bases at Yankee Stadium after hitting a walk off home run. It was all in slow-motion too, for added effect. And suddenly and surprisingly, the music began to make perfect sense.

After considering why, the answer seems to me to be that I was listening to a type of 'soundtrack' piece. And this instantly solved the dilemma.

In short, I think a composer like Mozart, to name an obvious one, is using melody to tell a non-verbal story. The music transports, it commicates a sense of place and emotion, and linear sense of a story line of sorts. In this setting, when the fire and brimstone arrive they are pre-explained and earned. They are in my place, where my thoughts are. For Beethoven, I think this is an element that must be provided by the listener. Thinking further, it became very clear why Beethoven was played to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall. It's the perfect companion to such an event. How could someone familiar with the piece, as I am now, not crave it at such a moment? But as appropriate as that is, the emotional context was imported by the listener. It is a required ingredient not supplied by the composer.

I generally look, in my music listening, for a self-contained piece. A piece that I will feel inclined to play at any time to lift and transport me. I think that is accomplished with inspired use of melody, and dynamics.

Beethoven's got the amps turned up to "11", and when I'm ready to celebrate, nothing beats 11. But it is interesting to think of this piece and its fiery themes intertwined with a melodic storyline that would explain to struggle that leads to the triumph.

The CD I listened to contained the 6th as well, and as I understand Beethoven wrote the 6th in parallel with the 5th, completing it just weeks later. Its humble tones evoking subtle movement and the outdoors was perhaps the counter-point Beethoven himself had in his mind. Perhaps if these had congealed into one piece, all these elements could have come together...

I come away from the experiment with my dilemma solved, and a new familiarity of a piece of music that at some future, happy event I will enjoy immensely. At such an event, nothing else will do. Both gains are very valuable. The truth is, though, I'm not likely to listen to this piece very often until that happy event arrives.