I refuse to be stripped of it. I refuse to have it reduced to anything less epic than it is (or can and should be).
Everybody knows Beethoven’s fifth symphony, or at least those arresting opening notes. They’ve infiltrated popular culture almost to have become hackneyed.
The symphony itself is masterful, dramatic and intensely emotional. Written during his “middle” or “heroic” period (naturally, I prefer the latter), he was already on the way to complete deafness by the time he began working on the symphony in 1804. He took his time with it as well, moving it to and from the front burner until its premiere in 1808. Little did he know he was debuting what would become one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of art.
Numerous stories and mythologies revolve around that opening motif – is it fate? Destiny? Death? Longing? All things unfinished? Or (I hesitate to say it, such is the horror of the possibility): a birdsong? Though the most “credible”, I immediately discard the idea that those booming, powerful opening notes could be inspired by or in reference to a bloody birdsong.
After all, we are speaking of a man who composed some of the world’s most moving Romantic period music while being entirely unable to hear it. Still, the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint remained alive in his mind, and he had a remarkable ability to conjure these works in his imagination and then to express and score them, without ever really being able to hear firsthand if they worked.
There is the moving story of his epic (and equally popular) 9th symphony: the choral symphony, or Ode to Joy (what we know in contemporary culture as “Joyful Joyful”).
By its premiere, Beethoven was completely deaf. At the end, he had to be told by his supporters to turn around and witness the thunderous standing ovation the premiere had received. He had no idea. The story goes: he wept.
With stories so legendary around the man and his work, how on earth am I to accept that the defining theme of the fifth symphony is not man’s destiny, or fate, or passions knocking ferociously at the doors of his consciousness? How am I not to hear the development, inversion, and variation of this theme as man’s own exploration of what his true path might be, where his deepest desires lie, and ultimately triumphing in a majestic, heroic flourish as he at last walks in step with his destiny by the symphony’s (delightfully heavy-handed) conclusion? The third movement swells attacca into that unbridled fourth movement in much the way that I think Beethoven continued to rise above and to attack life and his art, no matter his limitations.
A birdsong? Really?
I used to be a stickler for “facts” and “truth”. And I still uphold that for journalistic work – you try your very best to get the stories right when you tell them. But the longer I live, the more I realise how relative those concepts of fact and truth are, how impacted they are by perception, reception, and the limitations of what we can conceivably “know” with any certainty. All facts and the whole body of (though often still disputed) human knowledge is simply as much as has come to light for right now – and not been buried! Much still lingers in shadow, in possibility, in conjecture, in mysticism. In truth (ha), none of us really knows anything. And what we know is seldom, if ever, anything resembling an immutable truth.
So I choose imagination. I choose magic. The fate motif might be nothing at all. Or it might be (gag) a birdsong. But I choose the romantic, moving and inspiring belief that, in some of his darkest days, Beethoven – against all odds – created a work of stunning resilience and hope, celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and the triumph of imagination over deprivation.
And who knows – but I also choose to believe that Beethoven himself would be OK, if not amused, by that conviction.