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Beethoven’s stormy Fifth
Symphony opens Purdue
It begins by repeating a distinctive four note phrase, but it doesn’t take all eight notes for listeners to recognize Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, perhaps the best known symphony of all time.
Phenomenal and profound are adjectives Conductor Andrew King employs with ease in describing Beethoven’s legendary Fifth which his Purdue Philharmonic Symphony will perform in its entirety at an 8 p.m. concert Friday, Sept. 30, at the Long Center, 111 N. Sixth St., Lafayette.
Admission is free.
“There’s a really good reason why the Fifth’s considered one of greatest symphonies. The way it’s constructed is extremely profound. Every time I come back to it I discover new things I hadn’t noticed before,” King says. “His four note motif is not only the genesis for the entire symphony, but practically every note in it is derived from those four notes. So many composers have aspired to do what Beethoven did but few have ever come close.”
King believes the Philharmonic’s performance, which will be led by guest conductor Doug Droste from Oklahoma State University, will be close to the maestro’s original interpretation. In the intervening centuries since its premiere, conductors have slowed and over dramatized the opening notes. They have doubled instrument parts and taken other liberties.
“To me, the music is so much more startling and powerful if you do just what score says” which includes an allegro, or fast, approach to the opening phrases, says King.
“It’s fun to play the Fifth with students who haven’t ever played it before. And it’s really cool as they start to understand what going on with music, and how exciting and meaningful it is.” King is working with the horn players to produce sounds on modern instruments that would have been heard back in Beethoven’s time.
In the 1800s horns didn’t have valves and King believes the composer wanted the bright, nasal, brass sound of the no valve horn in certain sections. So the student musicians will seal off the valves on their horns in an attempt to replicate that sound.
Considered by many to be the first of the great romantic composers, Beethoven shattered the common image of composers of the day. Instead of living off the patronage of the wealthy, he lived off the money he earned from publishing and selling his music. “The romanticized image of the starving artist living for his art comes from Beethoven,” King says
To settle on those four notes and create a symphony around them took Beethoven four years. In his mid 30s at the time, he repeatedly interrupted his work on the Fifth to prepare other compositions. When he was ready for the public to hear it, the Fifth Symphony ended up being just one of many new works on a mammoth concert on December 22, 1808, in Vienna.
The Fifth, and other works, were personally directed by the maestro but history records that there was little critical response to the Fifth’s premiere which took place under adverse conditions. The auditorium was icy cold, the concert was very long, stretching out for four hours, and the orchestra was underprepared.
It was only after a second performance a year and a half later, that the superlatives started rolling. In a rapturous review, E.T.A. Hoffman raved about how perfectly interconnected and flowing the symphony was. He proclaimed the Fifth to be the masterwork of a genius. Quickly, the Beethoven symphony acquired status as a central element of every orchestra’s repertoire.
Considered groundbreaking both in terms of its technical and emotional impact, the Fifth has had a large influence on composers and music critics, and inspired work by such composers as Brahms and Tchaikovsky. It was played at the inaugural concerts of the New York Philharmonic on Dec. 7, 1842, and the National Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 2, 1931.
Beethoven composed his Fifth Symphony in the key of C minor, a key he preferred due to its stormy, heroic tonality. He wrote a number of works in C minor whose character is broadly similar to that of the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven Writer Charles Rosen says, “C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, it gives him to us in his most extroverted form where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.”
Much lore surrounds the famed “dit-dit-dit-dot” rhythmic motif which opens the Fifth. One of the maestro’s pupils, Carl Czerny, claimed it was inspired by the song of a yellow-hammer bird heard as he walked in Vienna’s Prater-park. Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, promoted, perhaps falsely, that the motif was a representation of “Fate knocking at the door.”
King considers the fate metaphor urban lore. “Because Beethoven was first composer who made his living publishing music, he was very apt to say things that would make the music sell. But I still don’t think there’s any evidence that Beethoven really said that.”
The concert is sponsored by Purdue Bands & Orchestra which offers an array of free concert band, jazz and orchestra events. For more information visit www.purdue.edu/bands
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