Power of Beethoven's Fifth flows from its universality

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Classical music's reputation as a quiet art form comes with this strident contradiction: The genre's most famous work, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, is a boisterous, loud and sometimes even angry work about an unspecified yet monumental conflict.

At least that's the case in its famous opening movement, which opens with those well-known four notes -- three short G's followed by a held E-flat -- that explode out of the silence like a passionate argument. Actually, there are five notes, if you count the short rest at the beginning of the piece, and you should, as it lends urgency by forcing the theme to start on an off beat.

A later claim by an associate of Beethoven that the four-note theme depicts "fate knocking at the door" may be spurious, but the sentiment doesn't seem far off, according to Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck, who will conduct the orchestra in the work to open its season.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestraar
  • Featuring: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Yuja Wang, pianist.
  • Program: Gandolfi's "Garden of Cosmic Speculation," Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Beethoven Symphony No. 5.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. next Sunday.
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • Tickets: $20-$93; 412-392-4900.

"The message of drama is very clear in the first movement -- drama between sadness and fate," says Mr. Honeck. "We have to know that Beethoven's angle to the music world is one word: revolution."

Although the symphony endured an inauspicious premiere in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1808, performed by an ill-prepared orchestra in a chilly hall, the Fifth shook the music world in the years after.

"Can there be any work of Beethoven's that confirms all this to a higher degree than his indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor?" raved the critic E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1813. "How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!"

Mr. Hoffmann is ambiguous about what the Fifth Symphony is about not just because he was a prototypical Romantic writer who preferred to wax poetically, but because Beethoven never specified what struggle -- ultimately overcome at the end of the four-movement work -- the Fifth Symphony refers to. The composer was battling mightily with the loss of his hearing, so much so that he almost committed suicide a few years earlier. He also had recent rejections on the amorous front. And there was the business of war, as Vienna was in the middle of a Napoleonic invasion during the period Beethoven wrote the Fifth.

Many different readings

But in what might be seen as a hindrance to its acceptance, Beethoven's reticence probably helped the Fifth's legacy. The ambiguity created a universality that helped, and helps, to keep the work fresh decades later. Unlike Beethoven's other "battle" symphony, "Wellington's Victory," tied forever to Britain's defeat of France, the Fifth Symphony can take on many different readings. And it has.

The Fifth Symphony actually has been the soundtrack to war. Otto von Bismarck is said to have used it to rouse his Prussian troops. And British radio broadcasts during World War II opened with the first notes of the Fifth Symphony because their rhythm in Morse code is the letter "V" for victory. The Fifth also has been read as a metaphor for sex, for battling disease and, in countless cartoons and films, to symbolize something serious has just happened.

"Thus Beethoven's music has served throughout the last two centuries as a kind of potent and free floating moral force that can be harnessed for any number of political enterprises, from racial purity to human rights, fascistic subjugation to world brotherhood, without suffering the stigma of the collaborator," writes Grove Music Online about the composer's entire output. "His music has survived these multifarious appropriations ... ."

Mr. Honeck agrees that any listener should feel free to connect in a personal way to the Fifth. "Every human in this world has his own problems, where he has to fight," he says. "Beethoven was like one of [us]. We are annoyed sometimes, we are angry sometimes, and Beethoven was very angry. I think that he could not compose it in any other way. He felt it in his heart and soul."

Four important notes

But one thing is certain: No matter what interpretation is made, the underlying assumption is of struggle. The four-note motif returns relentlessly in the opening movement, with its rhythm appearing even when the music has become lyrical and calm, as if Beethoven were showing that the adversity it represents will not be cast aside easily.

"These are four notes that make the whole symphony," says Mr. Honeck. "It never happened before in that concentration."

For the conductor, who is becoming known for his own chiaroscuro interpretations that take a measure of inspiration in performance practice, Beethoven's dramatic first movement is welcome territory. "The keys are changing all the time, the harmonics are so extremely expanding, going from one extreme to another."

And there's been quite a contrast in styles of interpretation of the Fifth Symphony over the years by conductors. Tempos vary immensely, based in part on the fact that many conductors have felt that Beethoven's metronome markings are not accurate because he appended them late in life (the timer was not invented until several years after the Fifth was finished). More Romanticized recordings of the first movement -- slower and with many pregnant pauses-- by famed conductors such as Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner come in as much as two minutes longer than those by performance practice specialists such as Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington. Mr. Honeck prefers faster tempos, but he will take some liberties, using ritardandos (slowing down), when he feels it makes sense.

"I take my freedom," he says. "If I feel the climax of a fight or of a collapse, I take the freedom to expand it. I do a little ritardando there. If everything is normal and goes like a machine, it will not work for me. I have to create the story. Especially in the first movement. I want to have people to feel the first experience they had years ago."

Final three movements

But what about the rest of the story? Mr. Honeck feels that the final three movements of the Fifth Symphony are too often neglected in light of the famous first. In fact, Mr. Honeck conducts the work with this in mind, casting his own revolutionary take on the work: "The first movement is probably like an overture to the story. You have to tell the sadness before you enter the rest. It is like looking back in a film, and the reality starts in the second movement."

That's high on the radical meter as interpretations go, but Mr. Honeck's reading has its support in the fact that symphonies in Beethoven's time were sometimes performed with a break after the first movement.

"Beethoven was a composer of contrast, and the contrast [here] was the melody. ... The second movement is such a wonderful melodic element," says Mr. Honeck. "And [the contrast] comes in the third movement when he plays again with the shadows and with the fate."

Indeed, Beethoven famously brings back the fate theme in the third movement, but in a modified form that suggests that it is losing strength in its battle.

"One of the fantastic things is the transition to the fourth movement," says the conductor. "It is unbelievable how he created this. The moments before are tender [yet] with the darkness of contrabass and cellos. I think that this transition is for me the most important element. It is very hard to play."

Moments later, the final movement ushers in heroic strains in C major in what can only be heard as a grand pronouncement of victory over the struggle. Listening or performing this glorious, sweeping, almost cinematic, music, it hardly matters what that struggle was.

Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com/music.


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