Beethoven’s Fifth

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

– John Donne

“Energy is Eternal Delight”

– William Blake

What is Genius? It is the ability to bring an audience of two thousand people leaping to their feet in spontaneous applause, their hearts aflame with your music, two hundred years after it was written.

Yes, the conductor and the orchestra will take the bows (and deservedly so) but in their heart of hearts who are the people really applauding? For whom will they cheer till their palms ache and their voices go hoarse? Only for the one, the glorious, Ludwig van.

There has never been, and never will be, another piece of music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In writing the Fifth, Beethoven has written a song of Miltonian defiance, has gathered demons from every corner of the human soul into a maelstrom of rebellion, a whirlwind of furious energy joined to exquisite control. He has taken a sledgehammer to the world, smashing everything in sight. No force on earth could hope to withstand such an onslaught, the gods themselves would shatter like mirrors. The Fifth is the anthem of the Titans, the battlecry of Prometheus, the marching song of the Apocalypse. Beethoven has punched a hole through the ceiling of our silence and shown us, for one instant, the terrible blue of the sky that waits beyond.

No. Words are not enough to describe it. You could use every hyperbole that you could think of, and it would still be an understatement. From the cage-rattling manifesto of the opening to that unbelievable quickening of tempo right at the end, this symphony is a celebration of everything manic and triumphant. The Sixth may be a beautiful meditation on the purity of nature, the Ninth may be the most joyous celebration ever set to music, but the Fifth is the battle that must be fought before that victory and that peace can be enjoyed.

The eventual victory, of course, will be Beethoven’s. There is too much muscle here – the sheer sound of that fourth movement as it breaks through the scattered ranks of the third is an army that brooks no indifference. But all is not anarchy. Lurking in the pounding heart of Beethoven’s mutiny is the vision of a true poet, his sense of trembling wonder. It is easy to overlook, in the rapture of those bold allegros, the sweeter, more exalted sound of the slow movement, or the lilting moments where Beethoven shuts down the fury of his orchestra to allow a single instrument to sing like a timid bird in the heart of battle. The fact that they are not as grand or as insistent as the rest of Beethoven’s artillery does not make these parts of the symphony less heroic – it makes them more so.

The truth is that the Fifth is a baptism by fire. Beethoven’s great insight is the same as Blake’s – that to be free to create is to be on the side of the demons, that it is our indignation, not our forgiveness, that makes us human. In turning rage into a form of transcendence, Beethoven has given us the right to be proud of our anguish, even as we struggle against it. Written some seven years after Beethoven first publicly admitted to his deafness, the Fifth is a statement of pure opposition, setting the adverse power of music against the utmost power of Destiny.

Most of us, if we are lucky, will cheat Fate for a while. Beethoven was the only one who dared challenge her to a fair fight. And won.

Note: Post inspired by a performance of the Fifth I saw today – Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra – the first subscription performance of the new season. Not a notably brilliant performance, just the usual high quality one expects from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but this is the first time I’ve heard the Fifth performed live (I’ve heard it a million times on recordings of course). I’m not ashamed to say there was a point in that first movement where I was almost in tears.