Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche

Beethoven in 1804 when he composed the Fifth Symphony

Beethoven in 1804, the year he composed his Fifth Symphony / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission.

The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences.

What is classical music, anyway?

Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, although only Beethoven was still living by the time anyone started to call it classical in order to distinguish it from popular music.

Basically the audience for popular music valued novelty and virtuosity above all else. They expected to be able to grasp it at first hearing and had no patience with music they had to study and hear over and over. That was for classical audiences, who wanted music that revealed something new and delightful on repeated listening.

For a fuller explanation of the distinction read my articles Classical Music: the Birth of an Idea and Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.

When Beethoven composed his symphonies, orchestras hardly played anything but new music. With a few exceptions, they rarely played any music by composers who had been dead more than 20 years. His music was not as listener-friendly as Haydn’s and Mozart’s. For one thing, he blurred transition between one section of a sonata form to another, something his predecessors made very clear and definite.

People whose taste ran to easy listening found Beethoven’s music confusing, although knowing his reputation as a great master and liking his earlier and less daring pieces, they usually blamed the “crudities” of his music on his deafness. A writer in the English musical journal Harmonicon (in 1825) represents this kind of listener:

The merits of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony we have before discussed, and we repeat, that . . . it is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we how have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any conniption in its parts. Altogether, it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma–we had almost said hoax.

Beethoven’s Fifth new in New York

George Templeton Strong as a young man.

George Templeton Strong as a young man.

George Templeton Strong, a New York attorney and music lover, kept a diary. His references to music have been published in three volumes. Strong was 21 when he first heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in February 1841. That was more than a year before the founding of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Here are Strong’s observations:

The music was good, very well selected and excellently well performed, so far as I could judge. The crack piece, though, was the last, Beethoven’s Sinfonia in C minor. It was generally unintelligible to me, except the Andante.

The first thing that stands out to me is that this pick-up orchestra chose to put the new and difficult piece last on the program. The advertisements for the concert probably announced the premiere proudly, and putting it at the end added to the audience’s eager anticipation.

Apollo Rooms. New York premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

Apollo Rooms, where the New York Philharmonic performed its earliest concerts.

The inaugural concert of the New York Philharmonic, in December 1842, included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Anyone today who hears a new piece and thinks it generally unintelligible is likely either to avoid a concert where it will be played again or await the piece with a sense of dread.

Not Strong. After the concert he wrote in his diary, “The instrumental part of it was glorious . . . Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor was splendidly played, and the Overture to Oberon still better, if possible.”

Nearly two years after declaring the piece unintelligible, Strong knew the piece well enough to notice that the orchestra had played it splendidly. And that fact calls attention to a huge difference between music lovers of the 19th century and today.

All music lovers played piano. They weren’t all good enough to play in public, but they could all play well enough to study any music that interested them. Publishers issued arrangements of orchestral music for piano, two pianos, and piano four-hands. Music stores made sure they offered arrangements of anything a local orchestra was likely to play.

And so clearly Strong had bought an arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and played it often enough to learn it. After repeated playing, he could understand its structure. He knew the themes. He knew how Beethoven fragmented them and recombined the fragments. He knew just when to expect them to come back whole.

Strong had no further opportunity to hear an orchestra play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until May 1844. By that time, he had probably played it and/or heard it played on the piano enough come to love it. His lengthy diary entry begins:

Feel today particularly happy–or particularly unhappy–I can’t certainly determine which–for did I not hear the Symphony in C minor by one Ludwig van Beethoven, opus 67, played ad unguem [played to exactness] by the Philharmonic? Haven’t I been fairly tingling all day with the remembrance of that most glorious piece of instrumental music extant, the second movement? (Twice played, by the by–the first encored symphony on record.) Haven’t I been alternately exulting the accurate possession of this relic and lamenting the fruitlessness of my efforts to get hold of that all day long?

I expected to enjoy that Symphony, but I did not suppose it possible that it could be the transcendent affair it is. I’ve heard it twice before, and how I could have passed by unnoticed so many magnificent points–appreciated the spirit of the composition so feebly and unworthily–I can’t conceive.

Today, “encore” means the performer will sing play another piece to reward the audience’s appreciation. But it literally means “again,” and Strong says that the orchestra played the entire symphony again a second time!

Anyone who learns to play an orchestral piece on the piano can discover its structure, its themes, key relationships, etc. They cannot discover the color of the instrumentation. That used to require attending a live performance.

Modern audiences at a disadvantage

listening to classical music?

Is this how to listen to classical music?

Not every lover of classical music today can play piano at all, let alone well enough to learn to love a symphony. We have recordings and full scores. Alas, not every lover of classical music can even read music.

Strong had another advantage. He heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (and undoubtedly other fairly recent compositions) performed live in his home town three times in the space of four years. How many orchestras, and how much travel, does it take for anyone today to hear new music live that frequently?

Over the last century and a half, the percentage of pieces by living composers on orchestra programs has declined precipitously. Music by Beethoven, Wagner, and other pioneers whose music seemed so revolutionary and strange at first has now become warhorses.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring made the transition from shocker in 1912 to something tame enough for a mass audience in Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. It can’t happen today. No orchestra plays new music frequently enough for anyone to have a chance to get comfortable with it. http://bit.ly/1l3CUja

Even recordings are not dependable help. David Del Tredici’s “Alice” pieces made quite a splash when they were new. That was a time when composers were finally abandoning the avant garde styles only an academic could love.

As I was moving from Chicago, the last piece I heard on WFMT was his Final Alice. I was out of reach of the station’s signal before it finished. When it was new, it was recorded on LP. It has not been reissued on CD. I wonder if I’ll ever hear it again.

Classical music has now become the background music of choice for writers and other people who want to concentrate. It has no words to distract them. Having background music makes it hard to give music full attention at another time. The wonderful treasures classical music reveals on repeated listening now pass unnoticed, in one ear and out the other, while so many of us are thinking about something else.

Photo credits:
Beethoven portrait. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Strong portrait. Public domain, source unknown.
Apollo Rooms. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Listening to classical music? Some rights reserved by William Brawley.


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