Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beethoven, Day F - F - F - Fiiiiive!

Countdown to Beethoven's Birthday:
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

Now we come to the Fifth, of which michael5000 makes the following sober assessment: "Overrated! Overrated!" Don't get me wrong, it's a fine piece of music, and I'm usually surprised by how much I like it when I give it a chance. But it hardly deserves to be the best known piece of classical music in the entire literature, the only one that any third grader (and many college graduates) can da-da-da-dum as their solitary scrap of knowledge about their musical heritage.

Well. That da-da-da-dum hammers out the Morse Code for V, and that stands for Victory, and that rhymes with.... Sorry, lost my chain of thought. The British thought it would be jolly to subvert the great German composer against his own people during World War II -- which was fair enough, as his people had empowered a expansionist totalitarian terror-state -- and in so doing burned the first few bars of this symphony into our collective consciousness for the next several generations.

The Fifth is, to my ears, more conservative than either the Third or the Fourth, but it does have its share of yummy treats. The first movement is a good place to observe how Beethoven does his most characteristic trick, the spinning out vast swathes of music from little, tiny germinal ideas. That da-da-da-dum isn't much in and of itself, but almost everything that goes on in the first movement sprouts out of it, which is a neat trick. This is also, if memory serves, one of the first symphonies in which the different movements start talkin' to each other -- where material from earlier movements is quoted and developed in later movements. The effect is to tie the piece more tightly together into a coherent whole.

The Fifth is good music. It's got a lot of thunder and expressive energy. It's not my favorite Beethoven, but that's like saying burritos aren't my favorite Mexican food. It doesn't mean I'm going to say no to a burrito.

See you tommorow, for my very favorite Beethoven symphony, and my very favorite weekly quiz of general knowledge.


Unknown said...

This is like the "Mona Lisa" of western music.

I concur on the "overrated" judgment, but indeed there are gems here. Beethoven in Heroic Mode, helped out by that C minor key. I am finding myself a big fan of his second movements this week, and this one is great too, with that unison opening, as is the 32nd note counterpoint in the lower voices. And the nice fortissimo horn parts.

But in the end, for me it ain't no Eroica.

Anonymous said...

A little late, but:

Cloud Atlas was my favorite read in years (#2 was "The Last Ship" by Brinkley). I always wanted to see it mentioned on a blog with a lot of Beethoven entries. Thank you.

The book was never released in hard cover in this here country. I was crowing about it so much, and giving away my paperbacks of it, so my wife dug up an English hardbound version for me (via Portland's Powell's Books).

Look for some of the same characters referred to in "Black Swan Green".

Rebel said...

You know, I think if another piece had become the famous one... people would say that one was 'over-rated' and complain that their favorite wasn't getting enough attention.

I think it's a good thing that Beethoven's fifth is so ubiquitous, it helps people ease into classical music. It's like Monet's early Japanese bridge paintings... maybe not my all time favorite painting of his... but it got me interested enough to seek out more of his art, and more art in general.

Unknown said...

I agree-- the "Mona Lisa" comparison was a backhanded compliment, of a sort. It lures them in, such that one can then turn the undergraduates' minds to other, more interesting things.

Michael5000 said...

@becky: I'm liking the 2nd Movements too.

@karmasartre: First of all, nice moniker. Second, welcome aboard! Third, you wanted to see Cloud Atlas discussed among a lot of Beethoven content? Really? Because the odds were so incredibly, incredibly stacked against you. Thank goodness you found the L&TM5K.

@rebel: Your point is well taken and well stated. I agree with you entirely. At the same time, that doesn't really affect what I said about Beethoven's Fifth. No piece of music could ever truly live up to the kind of iconic status that the Fifth has been blessed/cursed with, so it's overrated almost by definition.

On re-listen, as with all five so far, I made this unsurprising discovery: It sounds really good.