The first Beethoven that I knew as Beethoven was the opening of the fifth symphony, the four-note tattoo that’s one of the most famous figures in all of music. I first recall hearing it on a Time-Life record — not this album in my dad’s Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, but one of those flimsy little plastic records that you were supposed to weight with a penny and put on your turntable to sample the sound of a collection being advertised.
In this case, it was a classical collection featuring, of course, the mighty Beethoven. The sampler record opened with a few bars of the fifth symphony, then a stentorian announcer was heard. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but the gist was that if you didn’t own Beethoven’s greatest hits, you were missing out on THE MOST PROFOUND MUSIC EVER CONCEIVED BY THE MIND OF MAN.
Not the most welcoming invitation to classical music, but that’s the impression that generations have been given by an approach that takes Beethoven’s mighty work as its calling card. As well-worn as the work has become, it hasn’t lost its power to overwhelm. Majestic as the entire work is, its ferocious opening movement is particularly indelible: it’s one of the passages in Beethoven’s repertoire where even a 21st century listener can readily hear how the composer raised the stakes for all of music.
Beethoven composed the fifth in his mid-thirties, a period when his deafness was increasingly troubling him. In popular myth, the insistent theme of the first movement represents fate knocking at the composer’s door. To say…what, precisely? “The bad news is, you’re going to lose your hearing. The good news is, you’re going to become an immortal pillar of the musical arts. Sorry, did I come at a bad time?”
At least the reviews were good. Though the initial performance went poorly, E.T.A. Hoffmann later praised the score: “How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!” That makes it sound like a candidate for inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001. It wasn’t, but it did get sent into the stars: the symphony’s first movement appears on the Voyager Golden Record in company with the likes of a Brandenberg concerto movement, the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
In all of Beethoven, there may be no composition so definitively BEETHOVEN as this. The Ode to Joy may be even more famous, but it’s not the first piece you think of when you picture the composer’s glowering visage. That’s the fifth, speaking across the centuries with an urgency that seems unlikely ever to diminish.