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Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, an appreciation by Leon Botstein

Video transcript
- Speaking about Beethoven is hard because his name is so famous. And the romantic image of Beethoven is so engrained in our memory. Some of it is pretty true, that he was quite eccentric and mad and impolite, and unpredictable. He was also, and that's very important, deaf. And he was deaf when he wrote this symphony. It's very important to remember, because a musician who is going deaf is losing his purpose for life. This symphony is very closely related to thoughts of suicide that the composer had, which he confided in a famous private letter. He was also a great virtuoso, which means he expected to have a brilliant career and he came from a pretty tough family with a drunken father who was a musician. The important thing is to realize that he came to Vienna in 1791, the year Mozart died. He studied with Haydn, but he wanted to become the heir, as in any dynasty. He wanted to be the next big star in this world of classical music, which was dominated by patrons, kings and queens and counts and royalty and aristocracy. And they were all amateurs. So he was writing for his patrons. They were really the public. It wasn't really a large public out there. People who subscribed to music magazines, but there was no public concerts in the ordinary sense. He put on concerts himself. In fact, the concert that was done when the Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was premiered, together with the Sixth Symphony, it was a public concert. But that public is a really elite public. It's Park Avenue and the Gold Coast of Chicago, and just a couple of people. And that's it. So it's not a mass public as we know it. But he's communicated to them and he's showing how good he is at something new. We think of classical music always as people listening to things that they already know, that are old. That wasn't the case in the early 19th century. In addition, there was a tradition of symphonies that were sort of battle symphonies that entertained people. There were no moving pictures, so people sat around and they half-listened to something tell a story in a very tone-painting way, illustrative way. You hear birds, you hear cannons, and stuff like that. Now he comes up with the idea he's going to do something that is going to impress his patrons, and that also expresses, in a way, his own sensibility. So his personal subjective feelings becomes the subject of the symphony in his mind, which is why the first great review of this symphony called it really the high point of romanticism, because here is this subjective personality expressing himself, and he does it with utter brilliance and economy. He takes this very simple musical idea. It's like a game, like an improvisatory game. You take the simplest musical idea, four notes, and can you make a castle out of four notes? And indeed he does. The first movement, which is its most famous movement, is a dense, absolutely compact, brilliant one long sentence, with no periods, no commas. Sounds like it's periods, commas, they're only semicolons, you know. And the whole thing is like a one paragraph, one sentence. One breath, and it's over. And it is mind-shattering because it's completely unexpected and novel. He was fearless. In addition, he wanted to make a symphony that was not made of separate pieces. He didn't want, like, a meal. He didn't want the soup and then came the main course, and then some other course, then came the dessert. No. He wanted to have something that would go all together. If you look carefully at the symphony, you discover it has almost one pulse. There's sort of a tick-tock of the first movement becomes really the tick-tock of the second movement, which becomes the tick-tock of the third movement, which becomes the pulse of the last movement. And he does something. He fuses the third and fourth movements together. Therefore, he makes the job simpler. He doesn't have four pieces to put together and four movements. He's got only three, really. And the first is so startling, goes by so quickly, by the time you recover from the second, you're in the last piece, which are the third and fourth together, right? And it ends in a blaze of glory, sort of these hammer blows of these C-major chords at the end. Starts in dark minor and opens triumphantly in major. It's somehow so electrifying, so startling, that it is ... and so memorable that everybody has chosen it as his or her favorite emblem. In the Second World War, the opening is for victory. Both sides use it. You know, nobody can own this. This is like a slippery snake which you never can grab onto. It always changes its colors. It's a piece that went rapidly into the literature as the most famous symphony written. It is simply unforgettable, and it never wears out its welcome. There are generations where it was performed very slowly, and then, there is now a new fashion, very quickly, the first movement. Whatever tempo you take it, fast or slow, you can't kill it. It beats you every time. It is simply baffling how imaginative the composer is in using so little, and how unexpected the rhythmic punctuation, the use of silence, and the dramatic aspect of it. This is the first time the symphony wakes up and is a dramatic essay.