The First Four Notes of the Beethoven’s Fifth


 Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven in 1804, the year he began work on the Fifth Symphony. Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

The Symphony No. 5 in C minor of Ludwig van Beethoven, Op. 67

Fifth Symphony was written in 1804–1808. It is one of the most popular and best-known compositions in classical music, and one of the most frequently played symphonies.

First performed in Vienna‘s Theater an der Wien in 1808, the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterwards. E. T. A. Hoffmann described the symphony as “one of the most important works of the time”.

It begins by stating a distinctive four-note “short-short-short-long” motif twice: (About this sound listen (help·info))

The symphony, and the four-note opening motif in particular, are well known worldwide, with the motif appearing frequently in popular culture, from disco to rock and roll, to appearances in film and television.

The opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

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Ludwig van Beethoven – 5th Symphony 5 – Symphonie Nr. 5 – Best of Classical Music

beethoven-symphony-5-opening

Beethoven 5 th Symphony Opening

A new book, a new recording and some old instruments, all addressing the most memorable phrase in music: the opening of Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony.

Matthew Guerrieri has written a book about this symphony, called The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination. (Source:http://www.wbur.org/npr/165495617/beethovens-famous-4-notes-truly-revolutionary-music)

Guerrieri writes about how Beethoven’s piece resonated with everyone from revolutionaries to Romantics, and German nationalists to anti-German resistance fighters.

So many people have found so much meaning in just those first four notes. But Guerrieri says that we really don’t know all that much of what Beethoven meant by them.

“The most common story that is told is that Beethoven allegedly said that the opening of the symphony was supposedly symbolizing fate knocking at the door. And this is probably an invention of his biographer, although we can’t really tell,” Guerrieri tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “The other story going around at the time that Beethoven wrote it was that he had gotten the opening motif from the song of a bird. And that story just sort of fell away as the fate symbolism took over. But in Beethoven’s time, and to Beethoven, that actually would have been a fairly noble way of getting a musical idea.”

A Romantic ‘Bombshell,’ Delivered By Beethoven’s Fifth

English: Trio from Beethoven's 3rd. Symphony

English: Trio from Beethoven’s 3rd. Symphony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book, Guerrieri writes:

“The Romantic era [of the early 19th century] never really ended … Every time a singer-songwriter is praised for projecting autobiographical authenticity, every time a movie star expresses the desire for a project that is ‘more personal,’ every time a flop is subsequently recategorized as a before-its-time masterpiece, all these are reverberations of the bombshell of Romanticism. And one of its pre-eminent delivery systems was Beethoven’s Fifth.”

The author adds: “I think that the Romantic era is another thing that we just sort of take for granted, because they’ve kind of always been there for us. But it’s amazing how many of these ideas were new around the time that Beethoven was writing music. The whole idea that music picks up where language leaves off — which is pretty much a cliche nowadays — that was a very specific Romantic idea, and it’s one that lasted. Also, the idea that the artist is somehow more privileged in accessing these things beyond language, in accessing the sublime, in accessing glimpses of the divine, however you want to characterize it. A lot of the ideas we use to talk about music are these ideas.”

And how to play those four notes? “The two things that have been argued about more than any other technical aspect of the opening are the tempo and the fermata that Beethoven stuck in the opening,” says Guerrieri. “A fermata is an indefinite hold — the conductor can hold onto a note as long as he wants.”

Holding On And Letting Fly: The Tempo

The question of tempo relates back to an interesting story Guerrieri tells in his book. The metronome was an invention of Beethoven’s day; he didn’t have access to it when he was writing his early symphonies. But later, he came into contact with it and loved the device. “He immediately buys one and sits down and starts going back over all his old scores and putting in metronome markings,” Guerrieri says. “And he picked a tempo for the Fifth Symphony that even today sounds really, astonishingly fast.”

The setting he chose was 108 beats per minute — so fast, so hard to play, Guerrieri says, that people have been theorizing for centuries about why Beethoven might have mismarked his own symphony. A broken metronome? Advancing deafness? Nobody knows.

Dah-Dah-Dah-Duh For ‘Victory’

Here’s one other story Guerrieri writes about those first four notes: In World War II, the anti-German resistance in occupied Belgium needed a simple graffiti symbol. A Belgian came up with the letter “V.” It stood equally for victoire — “victory” in French — and freiheit, or “freedom,” in Flemish. “Once that ‘V’ idea got back to the BBC and they wanted to start using it in their overseas broadcasts,” says Guerrieri, “it was at the BBC that they had the idea of combining it with the Morse code for ‘V’: three short and one long. Somebody at the BBC realized that matches Beethoven’s Fifth. So they could start using that as a little tag to symbolize that [something] was going to be a pro-Ally, propaganda broadcast from the BBC.”

For full article and interview with author visit: http://www.wbur.org/npr/165495617/beethovens-famous-4-notes-truly-revolutionary-music
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