Dit-dit-dit-daaaah.Talk about a great hook! Three quick G's and a long E-flat – the opening of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony just could be the most memorable musical phrase of all time.
During World War II its suggestion of Morse Code became the powerful symbol of V For Victory. GI's who didn't know Schumann from shinola knew this was Beethoven and relished the irony of a German's music galvanizing the Allied effort to defeat the horrific murder machine that country had become.
But that's just the first five seconds. As for the rest, in nearly every poll, even of classical sophisticates, the Beethoven Fifth tops the list of favorites. Clearly, Beethoven crafted something powerful and universal that reverberates with ageless significance in every listener regardless of their depth of musical culture.
In retrospect we revere Beethoven for having ushered in the century of music which most classical fans enjoy the most. While Mozart certainly was pushing in that direction (and might have broken through had he lived past 36), it was the bold harmonic and structural explorations of Beethoven that launched the Romantic era in music, in which personal feelings were no longer repressed beneath conventional form. While the Fifth isn't Beethoven's most innovative or influential symphony (the Third and Ninth compete for that honor) it did have a wealth of ground-breaking features: the first use of a trombone in symphonic music, variations built upon dual themes, two movements joined together, the reprise of an earlier passage in the finale and, most impressive of all, a single motif that unifies the entire work.
Beethoven reportedly called his opening Fate knocking at the door, but nowadays that's largely discredited as unreliable hearsay; as Beethoven's posthumous fame grew, many associates tried to magnify their own significance by claiming special insights. But, as befits one whose genius lay in the abstract realm of music rather than a more specific art, Beethoven didn't trivialize his creations with a single connotation. Even so, the entire work exemplifies the Romantic ideal of an expressive journey, not in the sense of telling a story but rather as an emotional catharsis.
Fate or not, the commanding opening figure pervades the entire work. The first movement is grim and resolute yet charged with constant conflict and energy as glimmers of hope swirl through a relentless storm. It's a miracle of construction, with all the ideas firmly grounded in that first four-note phrase – even a lyric second theme rides atop and ultimately devolves into it. The focused intensity is relieved by a flowing set of variations, leisurely but with controlled surges of power. Next comes a resolute march built largely upon the insistent rhythm of the opening motif which descends into a hushed section of coiled tension and then explodes into the finale, an exhilarating shout of C-major triumph. In a masterstroke, Beethoven magnifies the effect by summoning again the tense portion of the third movement march and then repeating the triumphant explosion all over again. The work ends in a breathless coda built upon variants of the opening motif to pound home the permanence of the joyous destination.
While Mozart may have written out masterpieces in final form right off the top of his head, Beethoven struggled over the Fifth for nearly a decade. Many early ideas and sketches found in his notebooks started out conventionally, with lengthy repetitions and standard harmonic progressions. As a great composer, Beethoven delved deeply into his material to explore and develop its full potential, and as an equally great editor, he constantly simplified and tightened it. In final form, the Fifth is a masterpiece not only of invention but of concision; unlike movies and novels we consider great but in which minor changes would be inconsequential, not a single note of the Fifth could be improved.
But please don't think of the composer who lavished so much devout care on perfecting his work as a pure soul whose rarified spirit had risen far above the venality of the rest of us mere mortals. Beethoven was all too human – he contracted to sell the Fifth to a wealthy patron for 500 florins (a considerable sum), but after collecting the first 350 turned around without apology or refund and sold the very same score to a publisher. But perhaps it was Beethoven's intense humanity that enabled him to write in a style that appealed to real people, not just aristocrats.
That, in itself, is an essential key to understanding Beethoven's lasting appeal. Two centuries ago classical music was wholly dependent upon the patronage of nobility. Public concerts were rare and established professional orchestras unknown. The Fifth was given its world premiere in a massive four-hour concert on December 28, 1808 that consisted entirely of new major Beethoven works, including his Sixth Symphony, Mass in C, Fourth Piano Concerto and Choral Fantasia. By the time the Fifth rolled around that night, the audience was not only too exhausted to have paid much notice but also nearly frozen, as the hall was unheated and the winter bitterly cold. With only a single rehearsal by a pick-up ensemble for the entire program of unfamiliar and difficult music, the execution was a mess; at one point, things got so tangled that Beethoven had to stop and restart, a humiliation that the shivering players repaid.
Not surprisingly, the world was hardly transformed by first hearing this glorious creation – the premiere was essentially an exercise in sight-reading, and so notions of sensitivity and interpretive feeling were well beside the point. Nowadays, we've made up for that with a huge variety of distinctive, highly-polished and deeply expressive recordings that plumb the considerable depths of this amazingly rich work. Here are my favorites:
Although Arturo Toscanini's reputation as a classical speed demon is largely unwarranted, he does claim the fastest Fifth on records – a stunning concert of May 8, 1945 celebrating VE Day (on Music & Arts CD 753). Toscanini was a fervent anti-fascist and the overthrow of Mussolini and Hitler overpowered his usual sense of proportion to produce a hair-raising distillation of his political emotions that clocks in at a breathless 26 minutes, 45 seconds. Nearly as thrilling are his two studio recordings – a fleet and streamlined 1953 LP (BMG 60255) and a richer, more complex and astoundingly powerful 1939 set of 78s (BMG 60270) – as well as a 1939 NBC concert (Naxos 110823). Also firmly in the Toscanini mold is a 1954 NBC concert by his protégé Guido Cantelli (AS Disc 616).
Politics also flavored the best of Wilhelm Furtwangler's readings. The first was a 1943 Berlin concert (Music & Arts 4049) in which Furtwangler's personal agony is frighteningly tangible as the vast pounding tympani and inflated dynamics of his wartime desperation battle the symphony's intrinsic indomitable spirit. (Despite suspicions of collaboration for having remained in Germany throughout the War, Furtwangler was deeply conflicted and courageously endangered himself by working within the system to save dozens of lives.) A May 1947 concert (Music & Arts 789) marked his return to active musical life after his exoneration. Proceeding from a grimly powerful opening to an ecstatic explosion of victory, it symbolized not only Furtwangler's personal odyssey from repression to freedom but the triumph of permanent culture over temporary politics. There's also a superb 1954 concert, slightly more abstract in its emotions (Virtuoso 269729), and a remarkably noble 1954 Vienna studio set (EMI 69803) in which Furtwangler harnesses his former angst to animate a subtly-shifting and superbly controlled overall flow.
For the opposite extreme to Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, one of the stalwarts of German tradition, stretches his Fifths out to a glorious 40 minutes, both in a 1959 studio record (EMI 63357) and, to even greater effect, in a magnificent 1969 concert (EMI 66865). The result is like an athlete in slow motion, with power transmuted by a surreal grace. A precursor of this luxuriant approach was Hans Knappertsbusch, who can be heard in a leisurely 1956 Berlin concert (Arkadia 723). Equally spacious is Glenn Gould's playing of the Liszt piano transcription (Sony 52636), highlighted by an Andante of prayerful intimacy; had he not bypassed the standard repeats, Gould's interpretation would be the longest on record. A different sort of transcendence is achieved by Sergiu Celibidache (EMI 56521); consistent with his Zen beliefs, he strips the music of all rhetoric and presents it as a pure radiant abstraction.
At this point you may well ask: does music this great really require extensive interpretation to convey its treasures? No, it certainly doesn't and indeed most conductors, perhaps humbled before Beethoven's genius, let the Fifth speak largely for itself. Among many others, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA 68976), Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Symphony (DG 447 400), Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony (London 443 479) and Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI and any of three remakes on DG) all present magnificent playing and a satisfying balance of energy and control, drive and repose.And let's not forget the pioneers, who were raised in a era which encouraged personalized interpretation and who present a cavalcade of styles that remain fascinating and influenced all who followed. Often cited as the very first recording of the Fifth (as well as of any full-length symphony) is a set of four Gramophone 78s cut in November 1913 by Artur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic (but released individually over the course of eight months); despite the hardships of the acoustical recording process, this is a magnificent performance, maintaining a firm but gentle balance between power and lyricism, wonderfully balanced, plastically molded and beautifully played. Yet, the Nikisch recording was preceded by at least one other. The true first Fifth was cut by Friedrich Kark and the Odeon Symphony Orchestra in 1910 and issued on the Odeon label. Despite boxy sound that obscured much detail in a sonic blur, Kark led a swift, non-nonsense reading of spirited playing with an especially riveting first movement (6:30 including the exposition repeat), although the energy dissipates by the plodding finale. Another Fifth by François Ruhlmann and an unnamed orchestra on Pathé has been variously dated as early as 1912, or possibly 1916. Midway between the rigidity of Kark and the freedom of Nikisch, it boasts sensitive pacing and rhythmic variety, and a surprisingly vivid recording for the time in which tympani and brass fuel the finale. Next came a 1917 Victor set by Josef Pasternack and the Victor Concert Orchestra with fine balance, excellent playing and confident leadership, no doubt due to their vast experience before the recording horn as Victor’s house band and conductor – during his 20-year tenure beginning in 1904 Pasternack led the staggering total of over 3,000 (mostly pop) sides! Although generally moderate, he tempers each appearance of the opening motif with solemn weight, in abrupt contrast to a fleet rendering of the rest of the opening movement. Another notable acoustic set came from HMV in 1921, with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald, who seems to usher in the modern objective style of Beethoven interpretation with steady pacing, subtle tempo adjustments and minimal inflection .
Among trailblazers of the electrical recording era are Franz Schalk (1929, on Lys), who draws a rich, reverberant sound from the famed Vienna Philharmonic (whose execution, though, is shockingly poor); Richard Strauss (1928, Naxos), whose tempos tend to strictly underline the emotion of each section; Felix Weingartner (1933, Lys), whose relative objectivity blazed the way toward modernism; Artur Rodzinski (1944, AS Disc), swift yet without a sense of driven power;Willem Mengelberg (1940, Music & Arts), deeply inflected and seething with Teutonic mystery; Leopold Stokowski (1941, Music & Arts), smooth and romanticized, with a meltingly lovely Andante; Serge Koussevitzky (1944, Lys), committed, robust and resolute, and Hermann Abendroth (1939, Tahra), whose bottom-heavy yet bold texture has come to exemplify the German conducting tradition. Perhaps the most direct guidance for a future generation comes from Erich Kleiber (1953, Decca), whose intense focus and headstrong pace without any pause after the opening phrase were the clear source of his son Carlos's strikingly similar famed reading, already noted.
A fascinating alternative is one of the authentic instrument renditions, which use the smaller orchestras, lower tunings, less powerful instruments and wind- and brass-heavy balances of two centuries ago in an attempt to recreate a performance that Beethoven's audiences would have recognized. It's not a mere gimmick – Beethoven wrote the Fifth for the purpose of being performed, with a specific sound image in mind. But rather than settling our historical curiosity, the results raise an interesting question – despite careful scholarship to emulate the original sound, why are the results all so different? The first to be issued (in 1983) by the Hanover Band was warm, leisurely and subtly blended, while of those that followed the London Classical Players (EMI) are swift, inflected and bold, the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre) is rough and aggressive and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (Archive) is furiously driven (and without repeats would beat Toscanini by over a minute!). An interesting hybrid approach is taken by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec), who combine the power of mostly modern instruments with the recovered techniques of Beethoven's time. Which of these would Beethoven have chosen as the most valid? Ironically, he might have been utterly indifferent; by the time he finished the Fifth, he was largely deaf and so perhaps conceived the work largely in the abstract after all!
While these are the records that really enthuse me, there are plenty of others – 80 in the current Schwann alone (which omits performances that are out of print or only available on certain imports). Some are quite good (ie: Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on Sony SMK 47516; Szell/Cleveland on Sony SBK 47651) yet just not outstanding. Only a few disappoint – Bernstein's remake with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG) and Munch/Boston (RCA) sound tired; Walter/Columbia (Sony) seems uninvolved and Monteux/San Francisco (Music & Arts) snaps to life with a startlingly vivid first movement but then collapses for the rest (perhaps because it was taken from a different concert).
But in truth, I've yet to hear a single record of the Fifth, even by an unknown orchestra and conductor, that's wholly without interest. In reviewing dozens of Fifths for this column, I was struck by how, even after such intensive and repeated exposure, I'm still as enthralled by the work as ever. Indeed, I find myself thirsting for more; I would especially love to have heard what the wildly impulsive Nocolai Golovanov or Albert Coates would have contributed. And that, perhaps, is the strongest proof of Beethoven's genius – this is a work of limitless depth and matchless inspiration that constantly challenges and transcends personal taste and trends.
Copyright 2001 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.