Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony Number 5 in C Minor

It is hard to write about the most well-known piece by the most famous composer of all time. The four opening notes of the first movement have passed into both the collective unconscious and conscious, at least in the West. When my children were young, we bought a cockatiel, named him Bruce, and the first tune that I taught him to whistle was the opening of this symphony. Unfortunately, I also taught him the theme from the late 1960’s television show Hawaii Five-O.  He eventually scrambled the two, producing what we referred to as Beethoven’s Five-O.

I really didn’t pay attention to the Fifth Symphony however, until my best friend in seventh grade, Kerry Wade, loaned me a comedy album by Peter Schickele, entitled P.D.Q Bach on the Air. The record had a track called New Horizons in Musical Appreciation-Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Shickele had the incredible genius of fusing a broadcast of a symphony orchestra on a public radio station with a sports commentary. His two announcers, who sounded like a White Sox sport announcers, provide a blow-by-blow account of the Fifth Symphony in which the conductor plays against the orchestra. For example, they critique the individual players. At one point, the oboist in the first movement plays a little solo and the announcers yell: “What’s he doing? He thinks its an oboe concerto! I wouldn’t be surprised if he receives a fine for this.” At other points, they critique the music itself: “And they’re off with a four note theme. I don’t know whether it’s slow or fast, folks, because it keeps stopping.”

Now some people might call this blasphemous. Beethoven is a god, after all. But what I think Schickele was trying to show—and I once heard him do something similar with Beethoven’s Third Symphony on his radio show—was how revolutionary Beethoven’s music would have sounded to an audience around Beethoven’s time.

I do not know much about music theory, but I am told that Beethoven’s music was considered to be quite dissonant at the time it was written. Some people have attributed that to his deafness, which was complete by the time he reached 48. He had to compose without the benefit of even being able to play a chord on a piano to see if it sounded Okay. Literally, then this music was unheard of before its performance. What I find amazing is that his contemporary critics often labeled his music “incomprehensible” and even lacking melody.

The second movement has a beautiful lyrical melody, which foreshadows his Pastoral Symphony. And that of the third movement to me has a dignified and quite majestic tune, that I have no trouble whistling. The end of the third movement is quite exciting. It gives you the feeling of moving over a rainy landscape through the fog and suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds as it rushes without a pause into the joyous finale. Once again, Beethoven, despite his rapidly encroaching deafness refuses to be crushed by it and takes us to glimpse the splendor of nature and human creation.

Beethoven Biography

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