Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Why the propaganda?
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is amazingly famous, perhaps taking second place only to his 9th. The reason the 9th is so celebrated is obvious. It has this huge last movement with singers and a chorus, singing in praise of Joy. It also has a great, memorable, tune. But there’s a hint of a problem here already. There are lots of big pieces of choral music that end in glory. There are lots of great tunes. Why make such a fuss about this one? Well, because it is a Symphony, and Symphonies did not normally use voices, let alone choruses. In fact they never had done at all until Beethoven did it in this piece. So Beethoven’s 9th is not only a great piece with a terrific Finale, it is also music of great historical significance, crucial in aesthetic theories about the evolution of the arts, and the essence of Beethoven’s quest.
But hold on a minute. Who cares about that stuff? For a person listening to a concert, hearing the piece of music being played right now, what does it matter how it relates to other pieces by the same composer, or by other composers before or since? If it does matter, does that mean that you cannot enjoy Beethoven’s 9th properly unless you already posses lots of knowledge about “the evolution of the symphony” assuming that there is any such thing? Is our visceral reaction to music dependent upon being able to make formal connections with intellectual notions not contained in the sounds we are hearing? If that is the case, then how can we enjoy the Beatles without a comprehensive knowledge of Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Vera Lynn, Chubby Checker, Ragtime as a secular aspect of the combination of African musicality and plantation christianity which was the only religion available to slaves forcibly separated from the spiritual life of the country they were stolen from because of the need by an agrarian export-economy in the newly colonized territories of the Americas for a compliant and therefore disenfranchised labor force? Where does it end? Perhaps we shall never be able to TRULY appreciate the 1812 Overture
until we find out if String Theory is true and have a complete understanding of The Big Bang.
All of this is nonsense, of course, and impossible. In any pursuit of understanding, we can never start at the beginning. We have to jump in. And the Arts, including music, make a point of making their points without explanation, of being a conscious experience right there - experience, not understanding. The understanding part comes later, if you want it to, when you get so enthusiastic that you become a Music Buff. Once you collect a few Beethoven String Quartets, you get to like them, and maybe notice that they are far more different from each other than String Quartets by Mozart or Haydn or Schubert. And so then you get an enthusiasm for the pleasure of knowing about them, which may or may not enhance the real-time pleasure afforded by any one of them, but becomes a pleasure of its own - like the passion of stamp collectors or historians of the First World War, or any other scholarly endeavor. And here’s the clue to the fame of the 9th.
Why do we all go along with the esteem and celebration of Beethoven’s 9th? In part, because the experts tell us that we should. And the experts, in this case, are the people who run orchestras, and the people who hold professorships, and the people who plan festivals and brochures and radio stations. And all those people got there because they are music buffs. They are genuinely and innocently interested in things like “the evolution of the symphony” and tend to believe that it is a real thing. And, naturally, they tend to agree with each other rather a lot, because they are looking for preferment and promotion, tenure, critical respect and a secure income. Writers too, especially art and music critics, are going to be art and music buffs as well, else they would not have managed to get the jobs that they have.
I am not knocking these people. I am one of them. I have been a music buff all my life, and have even memorized most of the Beethoven Symphonies as part of my professional activities. Which does not mean I could conduct them all from memory today, let alone write out the scores. My goodness, what a humiliation the attempt would be! But it does mean I know them fairly well, and have thought about what Beethoven might have thought about while he was writing them, and why he might have tried y
in symphony x
, after w
didn’t work too well in symphony x-1
. So, naturally enough, I do personally think that it is jolly interesting that Beethoven decided to use a chorus in his 9th and last symphony. My curiosity is hardly a new reaction!
All music buffs agree that Beethoven’s 9th and its use of vocalists is a very interesting anomaly. It is a fact about that particular symphony which makes it fascinating to us in a wholly legitimate way. But does this mean it is automatically more interesting to the audience, the innocent audience, the audience who cares not a whit about the relative expressive power of words vis-à-vis music, nor the structural dilemmas Beethoven found himself wrestling with? Does it make the 9th automatically more gripping for the person driving home in a car who didn’t even hear the announcement about what this piece of music on the radio is? Does it matter that Beethoven didn’t have people riding home in cars in mind when he wrote it? Does it matter that Eddison did not have a Donald Trump vulgarity in mind when he invented the incandescent lamp?
So our musical life is filtered by the mandarins. The oligarchy that sustains the existence of the music business, and thus creates the possibility that you or I can ever hear any classical music at all, this oligarchy infects its decisions about what to do, and thus what we can hear, with its own esoteric arts-buff stuff.
So I suggest to you that Beethoven’s 9th isn’t necessarily or simply as great as you have been told. It’s good, but it’s not orders of magnitude better than either other symphonies or lots of other pieces that aren’t symphonies. It is famous because it is famous. Like Paris Hilton. Cascade theory, or catastrophe theory. Flip sides of the same coin. Everybody has heard OF
Beethoven’s 9th, and name recognition helps to sell tickets, so tickets for Beethoven’s 9th are likely to exist, which means performances will happen, and thus people get the chance to become familiar with it, and they like what they know, so they want to hear it again, and thus the cascade explodes exponentially. But the trigger that started it all is the unbelievably esoteric, (and, at root, not very interesting) fact that this is a piece of music with the word “Symphony” in its title (and classical music is not generally known for its catchy titles - “String Quartet No 9 in C major, Opus 59 number 3” !!) - a piece of music with the word “Symphony” in its title BUT
with singers in it, written at a time when that was a very unconventional thing to do. It has the appeal of the odd. And we all tend to focus on the odd rather than the subtle, if only because odd things are easier to draw attention to. Get a group of “Magic: The Gathering” enthusiasts together and often there will be talk about an odd card, a card that has caused lots of problems. A notorious card. Does that mean that that card is the most interesting or the most potent? Not necessarily. It just becomes the one that it is easiest to talk about.
For what it’s worth, there are hundreds of choral symphonies now. One of them, Mahler’s Symphony No 2, Resurrection
, is very obviously (to a music buff like me, but no way on a first hearing) a rip-off of Beethoven’s 9th all the way along the line. Lot’s of really direct links to be found. And in my opinion, it is a better piece. Beethoven’s 9th gets a great reception, but people go crazy
after a great performance of Mahler’s Resurrection. Gilbert Kaplan has made a second career of conducting just that one work alone. In Beethoven’s output, I would suggest that his 3rd and 7th symphonies are quite as terrific as the 9th. But these are not objective judgments of course. I am just trying to point out that the ascendancy of the 9th as a pinnacle of art, as the source of the European Union’s Anthem, as the piece played as the walls collapsed in Berlin - none of this is based on any objective judgement either. It all got going because the piece is an oddity.
So notoriety is the main reason for the fame of Beethoven’s 9th. I will also concede that it is a very good piece, else it wouldn’t have withstood this barrage of publicity. How long will Paris Hilton’ fame last?
And so I come to Beethoven’s 5th, since even more praise is heaped on this than on the 9th. And consequently it gets played a great deal, and has become, as it were, the axiomatic
symphony, the piece that orchestras play to prove that they are serious
orchestras. No music lover can have self-respect without having heard it. No conductor can be taken seriously if they cannot make a good showing of Beethoven’s 5th. I even saw Robert Spano, a conductor of fantastic and original talents, bringing musical thrills unheard of to the Atlanta Symphony audiences, receive, in his early days there, a very cautious overall review of his talents, based on the caveat, “but can he do Beethoven’s 5th?”
Who cares!?! Beethoven’s 5th has been done! If necessary, get somebody else to do it. Does every trial lawyer have to re-litigate the O.J. Simpson trial before he can be taken seriously.???
Sorry. Back again.
The point I am leading up to is this: the fame of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and the frequent assumption that it is the greatest of all symphonies, is once more, even more than in the case of the 9th symphony, the result of intellectual conventionality and laziness by the mandarins. Here’s why the Music Buffs think that Beethoven’s 5th is the greatest symphony ever written:
It starts out with the famous “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”, which is very short. Just four notes.
Virtually everything else in the symphony can be derived from that.
That’s it. That’s why it’s famous.
Really, that’s it.
Two question arise: A) is it true? and B) why would that be impressive?
I’ll answer B first. And this will be a "music buff mandarin" answer, but that is to be expected since my point is that the fame of the piece stems from the power of the music buffs.
An ambitious composer wants his piece to be big. That is basic Aristotelian Aesthetics. A really short piece is trivial. A Humungous piece drives people away. So it has to have a certain heft, as Aristotle says about tragedy. An obvious problem that any composer has in trying to write a big piece of music is: how to stop it from being fragmented, how to make it all hang together, but without being unduly repetitious. After all, once you have written one note, or one little tune, you have only two essential options: 1 - do it again, 2 - do something different.
Doing it again soon gets boring, and it is hard to think of enough new things to do all the time, and that would end up with a shapeless mess of things anyway. A lot of Icelandic Sagas, and Indian Epics, are like that. You get a string of events which seem to have little to do with each other, and which eventually just stop. There are many components, but no resulting unity. Music isn’t even about things, so you cannot have a central character, unless you are writing an opera, or a central idea unless you are writing, for instance, an iconoclastic choral symphony. (Hint!)
So what composers would often do would be to hedge their bets and do something that wasn’t exactly the same, nor exactly different, but, as it were, a little bit different. Similar, but not the same. Recognizable, but distinguishable. Intriguing. Variations.
Historical context: The first movements of symphonies were, by convention, written using a procedure called “sonata form”. This is just music-buff jargon for a particular formula for writing music: a cross between a particular ground-plan and a process. All sorts of composers invented all sorts of different plans for music of course, just as architects designed hundreds of ground-plans for buildings, but sonata-form just sort of “took” and proved incredibly fruitful, much as the cruciform ground-plan of a cathedral, or the house-with-enclosed-yard plan for a dwelling proved useful and fruitful in all sorts of circumstances. All of these, for reasons neither fully understood, nor needing to be understood, turned out to be great starting points, and great conventions. Immensely fertile. For my present argument, it is not necessary to go into the details of sonata-form, but simply to point out that one of the sections of the plan is called, again in jargon, the “development section.” This is a part of the design which was originally free. But Haydn had a great idea: how about if, in the “development section” (which is usually about half-way through the piece) we take little bits of the tunes we have already used, and kind of juggle them around? Haydn did this a lot. Mozart thought this was a terrific idea, and did it himself from them on. This “put the tunes in a blender” approach to the development had the exact advantages I hinted at above. It meant that the music was free and improvisational, and could go anywhere, but it was full of bits you recognize from before you put the fish in the bass-o-matic. So it was constantly fresh and new, and yet recognizably the same music that you had already been listening to. It was a great technical leap forward.
Now one thing this method required was this: the themes you started out with had to be the sort of themes that would work well when chopped up into little bits and blended with salsa and cucumbers. It didn’t work with long tunes that had to hold together. So when composers came to use folk-songs as their themes, which happened around 1900, those themes, though lovely, didn’t make for great symphonies. Since the folk-tune wasn’t really recognizable unless you played the whole thing, chopping it up didn’t yield useful sauce. So composers were back to the “do it again or do something different” dilemma. But that is an aside.
Beethoven really ran with this way of making developments, and even added a second development at the end of the standard sonata-form ground plan to give himself even more inventive freedom. He also made a specialty of using tunes which didn’t sound all that promising, but which he knew from experience would be great after going through the bass-o-matic and being turned into a sort of recognizable music paste.
Well, the 5th symphony is the ne plus ultra
of this way of working. What could be shorter and less promising than “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”? If you listen carefully, you will hear that the next thing that happens is “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” too. Then “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” - wait - “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”, etc.
A great deal of the first movement is made out of a sort of mosaic of little fragments that share this rhythmical shape. Chords are built up by piling versions on top of each other. And since the idea is so short (unlike a complete tune like “Danny Boy”) he can build almost anything he wants out of it, like leggo bricks, and still have the identity of the idea completely clear. This IS
very impressive. And even most of the third movement is built of the same tiny idea, but with a slightly different feel to it. From the point of view of a music analyst, or a struggling composer, this is awe-inspiring stuff. It demonstrates Beethoven’s utter brilliance as a composer - technically.
Question A was “Is it true”
Well, up to a point. That tiny idea drenches the first movement, and also great swathes of the third movement, (put a recording on, wait through the quiet opening, and see what the loud horns do.) But it isn’t there on the surface in the second movement, nor in the last movement. So it totally dominates a little less than half of the music. Commentators will show ways in which it subconsciously influences all the rest, and they are right, but so what? This principle of “thematic development”, as it is called, is an excellent technical device that has major psychological consequences, because it relates very closely to the way our brains recognize things as belonging together. But there is no moral law involved here. No principle of ethical purity. The thematic unity of the 5th symphony doesn’t in any way imply that Beethoven was a profound philosopher or a morally superior being. He worked very hard at writing music.
So I come back to my first, implied question. Does the technical brilliance of the 5th symphony make it a wonderful and beautiful and moving piece of music? I don’t think so. It think it IS
a great piece, though not a perfect one. There is a special sort of energy that comes from the piling on of these tiny little fragments, but this developmental tchnique has little bearing on the second movement, which is problematic in all sorts of interesting ways, mainly concerning ambiguity about how long phrases are. (That is a topic for a wholly different discussion.) And the tiny motif has no real importance for the Finale which, I have argued elsewhere
, is a bit like a New Year’s Eve Party: it’s all in the anticipation. The whole of the symphony builds up to that triumphant finale, but, once you get there, it is already triumphant, so the reason for the party is over the moment it starts.
So this is the reason for my bad conscience. We Music Buffs love Beethoven’s 5th because it is great, but also because it is easy to use it to prove how clever Beethoven was. But is it his best symphony? Personally I’d go for 3, 4, and 7 as more enjoyable. I have nothing against the 5th, but its reputation of supremacy is an example of the way we let ourselves be told what we should appreciate by people whose interests are not really those of honest and courageous listeners, fully confident in their aesthetic instincts and judgments, but rather somewhat anxious insecure people, looking for pieces to approve of, that give them a chance logically to prove that they are right. You will see, especially in season brochures, assertions that this is a wonderful, beautiful symphony, possibly the greatest ever written, that will uplift you like no other.
Well, that’s up to you to decide. The appeal to authority is always invalid.
I encourage you: ignore the politically correct canon. Trust your ears. On the other hand, if you want to be a music buff and get into what is going on in this fascinating symphony, then it is a wonderful game venue. The riches inside it are awesome.My Web Home PageMy Agent