Ever felt thoroughly out of your depth in a high-brow intellectual discussion on consecutive fourths in the second movement of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Pastoral’ Symphony No.3? When somebody mentions Wagner, do you immediately think of the Brazilian X-Factor finalist from 2010? Or does the name Beethoven evoke happy memories of a 90s film about a friendly Saint Bernard? Or, when the Four Seasons has come up in conversation, have you thought that someone was discussing the corporate-bourgeoisie hotel chain? Are you, in short, a bit of a pleb who desperately needs intellectual improvement?
Well this is Classical Music For Dummies, the column for the wannabe culture-vulture, where each week the greatest pieces by the greatest composers will be focused upon, from Palestrina to Shostakovich, Philip Glass to Monteverdi, the ins-and-outs of each movement will be explored and the deepest, darkest secrets of the personalities behind them examined.
This opening week’s work has the most famous motif in classical music that everyone will have heard- one of the most ubiquitous but, nonetheless, most epic of symphonies, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor Op. 67. Theories abound over the significance of the crash of the da-da-da-DUM in opening movement – are these notes the tempestuous throes of fate as Beethoven’s biographer surmised? Or are they a French rally-cry to the rest of Europe for revolution as heard by John Eliot Gardiner (whose recording of the symphony with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is a must)? Or merely the song of a yellowhammer songbird? Nonetheless, whatever they stand for, they are the most famed few notes in Western music, one that any child in a playground would know. The rest of the climactic ‘Allegro con brio’ first movement is constructed on the very pattern, intricately and knottily constructed, appearing, as the conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic informed, across the whole symphony c. 440 times- that was the only memorable part of a forty-minute lecture in Dutch…
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German-born composer who spent most of his career in Vienna, the musical capital of Europe in the Classical period, the era which is commonly accepted to commence in 1750 and conclude in 1825 (or about the time of Beethoven’s death). Born in Bonn, he is regarded as one of the ‘big three’ of the Classical period (along with Haydn and Mozart with whom he studied) and most famous for his symphonies- particularly this one and the Ninth- as well as his piano concertos and other instrumental sonatas.
The content and stately ‘Andante’ and the playful, Mozart-inspired ‘Scherzo’ are less famous, but just as well-written- especially for an increasingly deaf 28-year-old Beethoven, whose difficulties hearing were not so severe as his famous Ninth Symphony. Supposedly this was a side-effect of syphilis, an unsurprising condition judging by the number of amorous conquests Beethoven was reported to have…!
The symphony itself is a ‘classic’- and (fittingly, given the syphilis) it has been called the first ‘romantic’ symphony, on account of the ground-breaking resolution from utter despair to blissful joy over its duration. The Fifth is a piece that changed the way in which symphonies were composed for the rest of the nineteenth century, a model that paved the way for other Germanic composers like Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler to name a few. Beethoven is a relatively young man in 1808, having written four symphonies, including his famous Eroica, a celebration of Napoleon’s successes from 1803-4, and countless concertos, he can be considered a veteran. The Fifth is premiered on 22nd December 1808 along with his Sixth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto in a four-hour concert, though at the time a chilly audience in a snow-bound Vienna did not appreciate it quite as they should. Now it is considered the greatest premiere ever, marking the pinnacle of the composer’s most creative years.
To conclude the symphony, the brassy and majestic ‘Allegro’ demonstrates the power of an ever-modernising orchestra. The premiere marked the first occasion in which trombones had been introduced into the orchestra, hence Beethoven’s captivation with fanfares throughout the last movement. Up until then, the Vatican had outlawed use of the instrument in secular music. It was seen as a sacred sound for strictly ecclesiastical uses- a very strange concept now (no offense trombonists…)!
Having mentioned the Pastoral Symphony No.6, which premiered with the Fifth, this is the first truly programmatic symphonies (i.e. that tells a story), which will probably crop up again later in the year, but enjoy the storm and the frolicking celebration that takes place afterwards!
Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto ‘The Emperor’ is one of his greatest works especially the tranquil middle movement, the Adagio un poco mosso, written a few years after the Fifth in 1811.
Finally, Violin Concerto in D Major is his only complete concerto for the violin, dating from 1806 and composed alongside the Fifth. Again, it is another of his great pieces that was disregarded at the time, before becoming one of the best-loved of Beethoven’s work in the orchestral repertoire.