Fate knocks: Beethoven's Fifth is still up for interpretation

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later
Pittsburgh Symphony

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
What: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; Brahms' "Nanie," "Gesang der Parzen" and "Schicksalslied"
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $17-$72; 412-392-4900.
Listen in
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony comes in a remarkable variety of interpretations, as just a sampling of recordings of the first few measures shows:
Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc, 1988)
Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic (Allegro, 1943)
Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (Decca, 1987)
Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 1975)
Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI, 2000)
Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA, 1959)
Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Columbia/Sony, 1958)
Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Telarc, 1999)

Today, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is as much a monument as a composition. Its famous repeated four-note motif is the most well-known symphonic phrase ever written, heard everywhere from commercials to cartoons, films to pop songs and even sporting events.

Those four notes also announced British prime ministers' radio broadcasts during World War II, the notes corresponding with Morse code for the letter "V," for victory.

Countless orchestras ranging from community to high school to professional perform the Fifth every year. Its potent, driving music and its association with dark fate has fascinated listeners for centuries, regardless of how much they know about classical music.

One might figure such a universally acclaimed work would long since have had consensus on its performance. Of all composers, Beethoven would seem to be an authority one doesn't mess with, and that main theme is so extraordinarily concise there could hardly be much variation.

Well -- dah-dah-dah-DAH! -- it turns out the Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most modified first movement of any symphony out there. Nearly ever since Beethoven conducted its premiere in Vienna in 1808, conductors have put their personal stamp on it.

Just take the well-known "fate-knocks-at-the-door" theme alone. These aren't Beethoven's words, although he clearly organized the Fifth as a triumph over adversity by moving from dark C minor to sunny C major. (The minor-major transformation was a well-known general musical narrative at the time, one Beethoven may have specifically meant to represent his own battle with deafness.)

Over the first five measures of the work, the entire orchestra twice articulates the "fate" motif. However, Beethoven asks that, in its second statement, the orchestra play the fourth note of the motif -- the low "DAH" -- twice as long as it did the first time. He does this by adding an entire extra measure, not something he would do capriciously. Some theorists feel the addition builds purely musical drama, while some musicologists feel it signifies just how much of a struggle it will be to overcome the "problem" posed.

Either way, it would seem to be significant. Yet many conductors ignore that indication, interpreting the fermata above the fourth note to mean they can have artistic license with it. Bruno Walter holds the fourth notes of both "fate" statements the same ponderous length in a recording from 1958 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Christoph von Dohnanyi does the same with the Cleveland Orchestra in a 1988 recording, although his overall tempo is much faster. Others, such as Simon Rattle (with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2000) only slightly increase the length of that second low note.

That's only the beginning with, well, the beginning. Different conductors treat the first three notes of the "fate" motif differently, too. Some -- Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner, for instance -- ask the orchestra to aggressively accent each note. Others, such as Bruno Weil and Dohnanyi, almost glide over them to emphasize the low note that follows.

Then there is the issue of the space between the two "fate" statements." Most conductors go from one to the other with virtually no break, as Beethoven indicates only a brief rest, but Wilhelm Furtwangler inserts a long pause between both in a 1943 recording.

These are all interpretations that look to bring out the same basic philosophy of the piece -- the tempestuous start to its journey -- yet they vary immensely. And conductors don't stop there. Nary an aspect of the symphony, especially its first movement, go untouched.

Stylistic schools of thought also create musical manifestos with the Fifth. The early-music movement has produced several versions, such as Christopher Hogwood's 1987 recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, on period instruments. The timbre of the gut strings and lighter bows immensely alters the ambience of the piece, rendering it less weighty but more sinewy.

Authentic tempos, usually quicker, are another cause early-music conductors have taken up. John Eliot Gardiner flies along in his 1994 recording with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique .

The most radical approach to tempo, however, is Benjamin Zander's Symphony No. 5 from 1999. In his reading, Zander follows Beethoven's own metronome markings. Since Beethoven added these later (the metronome wasn't invented until 1812) when he was deaf, most conductors have ignored them. Zander's adherence to them to the millisecond sends the first movement racing to a 6-minute, 23-second finish -- more than a minute and a half slower than Walter's. It is a wild, stormy ride.

But, from Stokowski to Zander, none of these interpretations of the Fifth are wrong, no matter how far they seem to stray from Beethoven's intentions. Classical music is a performing art, and beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Some prefer the electricity of Gardiner, some the grandeur of Reiner and some the nobility of George Szell, still others the compelling manipulation of conductors who interpret the score as if they had composed it themselves, such as Carlos Kleiber.

Kleiber's 1975 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic has multiple accelerandos and variations throughout, building the music to glorious climaxes. It, like Furtwangler's 1943 reading with the Berlin Philharmonic, molds the music in an undeniably musical fashion, giving a ferocious account of the struggle. You won't find all the sounds in the score, but you don't mind.

How Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos interprets the Fifth this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony -- he says his reading lies "in the middle of the German tradition" -- remains to be heard. But one thing is certain: It will be different, at least slightly so, from anything done before.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?