Fate Knocks at the Door
April 6, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Da da da DUM. The four most famous notes in the history of Western music mark the beginning Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s interesting that this piece should become one of Beethoven’s most notable pieces, and in fact one of the most recognizable pieces in all of Western music because it barely made a ripple when it was first premiered. The problem was not with the symphony itself. The problem was programming. In December of 1808, Beethoven planned a massive concert for the Theater an der Wien featuring over four hours of his music.
The evening started with the Sixth Symphony, and the first half ended with the Fourth Piano Concerto. After intermission, the Fifth Symphony premiered, but was soon followed by excerpts from the mass in C major, an improvised piano piece by Beethoven, and The Choral Fantasy. Contemporary reports say the Choral Fantasy had to be restarted because of problems. That critics and contemporary reviewers might have lost the Fifth Symphony in the midst of all this other music is not hard to understand. From a historical standpoint, the Sixth Symphony which started the evening might have seemed the more significant piece as it had five movements instead of four, and each of the movements had titles. Also, contemporary reports ignored some of the music’s finer points, noting instead the problems with the Choral Fantasy, and the uncomfortably cold temperature of the theater.
It wasn’t until more than a year later that E.T.A. Hoffman, writing anonymously, sang the work’s praises. And it is here that we first pick up of the narrative that we now associate with this symphony: tragedy becomes triumph, tumult becomes exultation. It’s important to understand that Beethoven knew at this time that his deafness was inevitable, and that his time as a performer was coming to an end. This information had caused a personal crisis in the first years of the century, and Beethoven ultimately resolved to write music for as long as it was possible. He certainly did not suffer from a lack of ideas.
Beethoven spent a lot of time ruminating over the musical material for the symphony. He started sketching out ideas pretty soon after finishing the Third Symphony, but he wrote a lot of music while those sketches were simmering; Beethoven worked on what would become his Fourth Symphony, his only opera, Fidelio, the Appassionata piano sonata, a Piano Concerto (the Fourth) and a few string quartets. He completed the Fifth Symphony in 1808, and it was during the years 1807 and 1808 that Beethoven was writing the Sixth Symphony, which received its premiere on the same night. When the Fifth Symphony was published, Beethoven dedicated it to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky.
The first movement of the Fifth Symphony has a unique honor: it is featured on the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of music and sounds that was included on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. This piece of music is one of just a handful to leave the solar system and travel to parts unknown. It was chosen to represent one of the high points of human achievement, and I can’t say I disagree with the choice at all.
This piece is remarkable for many reasons, and not just because of its attention-grabbing opening. There’s a lot of tumult in that first movement. The second and third movements provide their own diversions from this. The second movement offers a theme and variations with two themes, one sweet and melodic, and the other grand and noble. Beethoven’s skill in building on these themes proves that he can command as much of the listener’s attention with lyricism and hope as he can with turmoil and bluster. The third movement brings back the short-short-short-long rhythm in the scherzo, and it seems to be everywhere. The contrasting trio theme shows Beethoven’s ability to write dynamic counterpoint. The transition from the end of the third movement to the beginning of the fourth movement is a wonder—there is no break between the movements—and one that Beethoven agonized over.
The final movement keeps refers back to C major rather than C minor, and in the intervening years many musicologists and analysts can’t help themselves from reading into this simple gesture. There’s no basis for fact here. We simply don’t know what Beethoven was thinking, but it’s hard to allow this to music to just be music. Beethoven does something quite interesting in the final movement, which is to bring back part of the scherzo in the final movement. A few years later, he’d do something similar in the Ninth Symphony, to great effect.
The opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has appeared in many places, in many guises. There’s a Disco version of the main theme from 1977 (Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven”); the four-note motif is the doorbell in A Clockwork Orange; it appeared in the commercial for Hershey's Symphony chocolate bar; Electric Light Orchestra used the tune in their cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” It has worked its way into the consciousness of our culture, and it seems like it has no plans to leave. This piece will continue to go on, and continue to be a favorite of orchestras and music lovers. There is something elemental to it that touches listeners, even young people today.
I’ve heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony many times. Every semester, I teach about it in my Music Appreciation class, but my excitement over the piece has never faded. When the final movement is over, I always feel like I’ve just stepped off a roller coaster: dizzy from the journey, overwhelmed by the sensation, and thoroughly spent. What begins with “Fate knocking at the door” ends with a passionate assertion of a triumphant C major, complete with fanfares and timpani, and an ending that couldn’t sound more definitive and solid. Fate might begin it, but human will ends it. Beethoven’s legacy continues through the generations; his story and his music endures, and for many, their first understanding of this person and this amazing life begins with those four famous notes.