Beethoven’s Fifth

I first heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 1954, the year after long-playing records  became available in Australia. Another student had a precious LP, and it was played in the students common room at university on our quite good gramophone. You had to ask for the sapphire-needle head at the shop, and move the turntable speed from 78 rpm to 33 1/3 rpm, and you had to do all this when there weren’t many others about, because the general preference was for hit parade 78s and the common room’s small collection of standards from the 1930s and 1940s.

But Beethoven’s Fifth quickly became general favourite, and students could announce themselves with a rousing ‘da da da daaaaah!’ I can no longer remember the orchestra or the conductor, and my own first copy, bought some time later, was a World Record Club issue. All I can remember is that the performance was slow and powerful. We young and new listeners knew that it was important, and learned in time that it was thought to be the most important symphony ever written.

Once the LP business expanded, Beethoven’s Fifth drew recording after recording, and in time was subjected to revisions that emphasised what were thought to be the styles of the early 19th century, rather than the grand, mighty performances characteristic of the 20th century. And it slowly ceased to have the appellation of the greatest symphony ever written. I’ve only heard it performed twice, once in London by the LSO in 1975, and once in Canberra by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, and both were fine performances.

Everybody knows the four-note theme with which the symphony starts, and underpins the first movement. It is, coincidentally, the Morse code for the letter V, and was used as the ‘V for Victory’ motif during the second world war, which might well have pleased the composer, German though he was, were he aware of it. And the symphony was, in its day, regarded both as a shocking departure from good taste and a revolutionary advance.

Its first performance was a less-than-comic disaster. Beethoven was always after money, and got the opportunity to use the main theatre in Vienna three days before Christmas in 1808 to put on a benefit concert, which he would conduct himself. As so often he overdid things, arranging for the premiere of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, as well as the Fourth piano concerto, which he played, bits and pieces from his C major Mass, an aria, some improvisation by himself, and to conclude, another new piece whipped up for the occasion, the Choral Fantasy. The theatre was unheated and cold beyond belief, the orchestra was thrown together for the occasion and unhappy, and of course everything was under-rehearsed.

The whole thing lasted for more than four hours. We don’t know whether or not it was financially rewarding, but we do know that it was not the musical success of the season. When the score was published it included a dedication to two of his noble patrons and friends, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razoumovsky, about whom I have written. 

The orchestra of his day was always a scratch affair, assembled usually by whoever was putting on the concert. The Vienna Philharmonic  would not be formed until 1842. Vienna possessed professional musicians who worked mostly for the theatres and taught students as well, and in addition there were a lot of amateurs who were at least as good as the professionals, music education being an almost compulsory part of the education of the children of  middle-class and noble families. The problem was getting them together and rehearsing them into a proficient team.  Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the leader of the string quartet which premiered most of Beethoven’s quartets, often acted as conductor, though not on this occasion.

Five years later, when Beethoven organised the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, the orchestra included  the composers Salieri, Hummel, Spohr and Meyerbeer, as well as famous instrumentalists like Dragonetti (double bass and cello), reputed to claim the highest fee for performance of anyone in his day, Romberg (bassoon) and even the guitarist/composer Giuliani, who played cello on the day. By then Beethoven was a cult figure in Vienna. He was by then seriously but erratically deaf, but conducted anyway. You can do that when you are a cult figure. If he wanted pianissimo, he crouched down; if he wanted fortissimo, he jumped up. It must have been quite a sight.

The ABC’s Classic FM had the idea recently of playing the first movement of the Fifth every morning, each time with a different orchestra and a different reading, and asking listeners which one they preferred. It was instructive to go through the week listening to them all, but all I could say at the end was that I preferred the fastest reading.

I don’t know whether or not that would have been the composer’s preference, and the metronome hadn’t really yet come to his notice, otherwise he would have supplied a metronome marking. I couldn’t easily find out how many separate recordings there were of the Fifth, but the current list of all Beethoven’s CDs comes to 5,393. No, he’s not at the very top: Mozart claims that honour, with 7,040, followed by Bach at 6,525. Beethoven is third.









Leave a Reply