I considered getting all mystical and stuff for the title of this post, but settled on the rather more famous interpretation of the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony instead. I thought it apt, since it took me about forty years to actually hear it played live. Fate’s been knocking at that door for an awfully long time, and I never actually opened it.
Travel back in time with me. I’m 13, and my most treasured Christmas gift is a set of all nine Beethoven symphonies, with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. I will literally play them almost to death, until the advent of CDs leads me to collect the whole set with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The Fifth, of course, is the famous one, the one that probably entered my consciousness first in that wonderfully cheezy disco version entitled “A Fifth of Beethoven.” I’ve been reading about Beethoven, and had checked most of the symphonies out from the library before getting my own set. Here’s what I had noticed about the Fifth: 1) It’s the Fifth. I was born on the 5th. 2) It’s in C minor, C being the third letter of the alphabet; it also has three flats. I was born in the third month. 3) It’s opus 67. I was born in 1967. So I’ve got a special affinity for this work, being slightly geeky about numeric coincidences even back then. Throw that in with what happens in the coda of the first movement, when we move to this theme:
It’s all quarter notes, but the the motif is played “da-da-DAH-da”–the same rhythm of my own name. So I could figuratively hear this work calling me by name every time I listened to it.
The historian in me loves the fact that the Fifth–whose opening notes (short-short-short-long) are the rhythm of the Morse code letter “V”-for victory, of course–was used extensively by the BBC during WWII. The postcard above illustrates how strong this association became. The Nazis were rather fond of Beethoven’s Fifth as well, and tried their best to claim the Fifth for their own purposes, but the Allies just laughed at the fact that every time a German played the Fifth, he or she was in a way subverting the Third Reich.
But despite the cool historical connections and my own personal ones, the Fifth always stood third in my estimate of Beethoven symphonies, after its odd-numbered successors, the Seventh and the Ninth. When something is that famous, when it’s played over and over and over in the oddest of places, you think you know it. It’s a cliche. So I never sought out actually hearing it performed, despite the fact that I never stopped listening to it. I used to crank up the Beethoven while living in the St. George grad residence, in fact, and a neighbour would come and bang on the door. I’d look tremulously out through the peephole at his scowling face, thinking he actually looked a bit like the composer–although he was clearly not deaf.
So last year when I decided to subscribe to a few Toronto Symphony concerts, I noticed the Fifth there in the list and thought, “I should really get around to that.” In fact, all three of the concerts I initially bought tickets to involved that number 5 again–the all-Mozart concert featured both the Fifth violin concerto and the 35th symphony, and of course there was the Shostakovich Fifth. And today, over a year after ordering the ticket, I finally heard Beethoven’s Fifth played live.
The concert was held at the George Weston Recital Hall rather than at the customary Roy Thompson Hall. This more intimate venue with its lower stage suited both the Fifth and the Mozart work that dominated the first half, although I’m sure the former would have worked equally well at Roy Thompson. The orchestra was configured a little unusually–the first and second violins to the conductor’s left and right (not uncommon), but the cellos and basses in behind the first violins. For the Beethoven, this “bass section” was joined by the lone figure of the contrabassoonist, not sitting at all near the rest of the woodwinds. I have to say that the balance of the orchestra was damned near perfect, though, so whatever the reason for the interesting configuration, it worked.
After a short opening work–the Elgar Serenade for String Orchestra–pianist Shai Woosner played the Mozart 21st Piano Concerto. This was the one that, growing up, I always heard called the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, named after a Swedish film from 1967 that used its Andante movement as a theme. This had made this particular movement one of those classical pieces that always appeared on “classical greatest hits”-type albums, although the association with the movie meant nothing to me. Still, I remember owning a copy of this on vinyl, and it’s an entirely charming work — classic late Mozart, sparkling and hinting at where he might have gone into Romanticism had he lived past 35. Woosner was fascinating to watch. The concerto opened with a long passage by the orchestra before the piano entered, to which he listened and nodded along. As his entrance approached, his fingers began to twitch. He would touch the keys lightly as if to say “You still there?” and put them back in his lap. Then they would twitch again. His interpretation of the concerto was crisp, somewhat restrained, but still fairly expressive.
So, now on to opening that door, at last, to Fate. The guest conductor, Nicholas Collon, is one of those rising stars in the world of conducting at age 36. The program notes his “elegant conducting style and searching musical intellect.” A slender man with a mop of dark hair, he seemed to me to be simultaneously unassuming yet in complete control, the “elegant” part being in the almost dance-like grace of his gestures. (I was not surprised to find out he is a viola player). Under his baton, the first movement’s famous opening motif moved quickly–the orchestra moved out of the fermata on the fourth note directly into the second set of four notes, and from there, he set a tempo somewhat faster than many I have heard. The first movement is full of drama and fire, and this faster tempo served to fan the flames into a solid buildup of tension. The quieter woodwind passages were crisp and clear, with the use of dynamics adding to the feeling of expansion and contraction before the final explosion in the coda (picture the fire, having finally caught, burning out of control.) The second movement was beautiful and lyrical, reminding me more than it ever had of the similarly-gorgeous slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The scherzo -like third movement featured crisp playing by the orchestra in the rapid scales initiated by the violas and wonderfully-balanced wind work until all died down to the transition to the fourth movement and the major key. Here, Collon took a repeat that isn’t always taken of the initial theme of the movement’s opening, triumphant theme–a repeat I am not sure I care for, given that that theme comes back again after the scherzo movement comes back to insert itself in the finale. Still, I can’t say that I minded hearing that glorious final theme an extra time.
Consider that door opened and answered. Fate will knock again, I am sure. Hopefully next time it will not wait for 40 years.
Coda: I commend to you Matthew Guerrieri’s book The First Four Notes, which I am finally getting around to finishing. It’s a fascinating book about how Beethoven, in particular the Fifth Symphony, has been received over the years around the world.