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

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

- Speaking about Beethoven is hard because his name is so famous. And the romantic image of Beethoven is so ingrained 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. This is very important to remember because a musician who is going deaf, is losing his purpose for life. And the 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. And the important thing is to realize that he came to Vienna in 1791, the year Mozart died. And 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, king and queens, and counts and royalty and an aristocracy. And they were all amateurs. So he was writing for his patrons. They were really the public. There 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 Fifth Symphony was premiered together with the Sixth Symphony. It was a public concert. But that public is really an elite public. So 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 communicating 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 nineteenth century. In addition, there was a tradition of symphonies that were sort of battle symphonies. That entertained people. There were no movie 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. So now he comes up with the idea, he's gonna do something. Now he's gonna impress his patrons and that also expresses, in a way, his own sensibility. So his personal, subjective feelings become the subject of the Symphony in his mind. Which is why the first great review of the Symphony called it the really, the high point of romanticism. Because here is the 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 in a story 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 a (mumbles) commas. They're only semi-colons. And the whole thing, it's like a one paragraph, one sentence. One breath and it's over. And it is mind shattering because it's completely unexpected and novel. And he was fearless. In addition, he wanted to make a symphony that was not made of separate pieces. So he didn't want like a meal. He didn't want the soup, and then came the main course, then some other course, then came the dessert. No, he wanted to have something that would go altogether. So if you look carefully at the Symphony, you discover it has almost one pulse. So the ticktock of the first movement becomes really the ticktock of the second movement which becomes the ticktock of the third movement which becomes the pulse of the last movement. And, he does something. He fuses the third and fourth movements together. So, 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 and goes by so quickly. By the time you recover from the second, you're in the last piece which is the third and fourth together. Right. And, it ends in a blaze of glory. Sort of these hammer blows of these sea major chords at the end. Starts in dark minor and opens triumphantly in major. So, it's somehow so electrifying, so startling, that it is, and so memorable that everybody has chosen it as his or her favorite emblem. So in the Second World War, the opening is for victory. Both sides use it. Nobody can own this. This is like a slippery snake that you never can grab on to. It always changes it's 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 I was performed very slowly and then there's now a new fashion, very quickly. The first movement. And whatever tempo you take it. Fast or slow, you can't kill it. It beats you every time. And, 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.