There it is on the program: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67, by Beethoven. You know it, don’t you? There’s the image of Winston Churchill holding his hand signaling “V for Victory.” If you are not old enough to recognize that elderly gentleman, you might be old enough to recall this symphony providing a theme song for the Huntley-Brinkley TV news. Maybe you are lucky if those visual images do not cloud your ability to hear the music. Is it possible to hear this music? It was sent into space so that the ETs of a distant universe could know who we humans are. For this writer, it is necessary to admit to not having heard this music for a very long time. In fact, it is impossible to remember the last time. That is good luck because listening to this music as though for the first time, one realizes that it is forever new. What was Ludwig Van Beethoven thinking while creating this symphony? One can only be sure that he was not trying to walk in the shoes of any other composer or to meet the expectations of the average Viennese concert-goer.
The spectacular performance by the San Francisco Symphony, June 18, took my breath away. It opened the mind and heart to new experiences and perceptions. It was so startling that it was necessary to hear it again before attempting to write this post. Fortunately, the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, did record their performance of the 5th Symphony. It is available on CD from SFS Media. The instantly recognizable opening three short and one long sound happens abruptly and violently. It is there on top of you without invitation or introduction. A lengthened, suspended note does not provide relief; it is suspended on a precipice of the unknown which is coming next. Repetitions make this theme seem almost normal, but it returns to threaten, provoking anxiety. A distant lyrical voice calls and disappears. The martial sounds are resolutely marching forward regardless of any misgivings. The force will not stop for us to reconsider. The Andante con moto, second movement, seems like it will be gentler. One hopes to catch one’s breath and disregard the threat in the first movement, the Allegro con brio. That is not to be. The horns sound what might be a royal processional. The king, however, pays no heed to those he marches past or marches on. The quiet music intimates that something is going on behind a curtain. A tune appears with rushing notes, perhaps it carries a message, but the big, slow king returns. Again, welling up like a spring of fresh water a tune comes back. One hears a tiny, distant pipe. It sounds like a far off hope viewed through a window. And yet, the drums and horns take over. The music makes an effort at drawing itself up and then slides down again. The ominous, persistent walking, marching sounds limp back from a war and hurry onward. Suddenly, a quiet plea in a song that picks up the rhythm and sounds so modern; was this really written in 1808 and not 2008? The tiny pipe returns, and the orchestra repeats and repeats and repeats. Just when one’s ear expects the repeats to round out and balance, the movement ends on the upward sound without finishing what was anticipated. The third movement, Allegro (attacca) is the short scherzo on which the life of this symphony turns. It is the first cousin of the the first movement. Its struggles climb over the trenches of fear while multitudes of demons circle. They are relentless. They would be comic if they were not so dangerous. Beethoven gives us odd silences which are not at all restful rests. The many ranks of demons, low to the ground, creep and bounce forward toward us all. In the final Allegro, all changes. There is a dim sound which spirals up to become very loud, and, finally, one is there with the flag of humanity on a hilltop. It is a victory that took so many losses to achieve, and still it is a victory. The struggle is still there in the victory. Just when we think we’ve made it and the fight is done, the swarms of demons encircle our little hill. They are back. There are repeatedly repeated threats, and we are here. The music declares that we are here. We must keep climbing. We cannot relax, but there is melody for our surprising win, our survival. Elements of the orchestra take turns to weigh in on this. The melody almost rocks us and embraces us. It is sustained, and it sustains us. The quiet horn and the piccolo, whistling like a bird, dance on top of it all. All the instruments are rushing like too many clowns pouring out of a tiny coach; all of the themes are rising, and it ends with music that does not sound like an end.
It is wonderful to have the experience of the 5th symphony in a hall with perhaps 2000 others living it together. And yet, there is also the experience of hearing it when alone so that one can release any inhibitions and spontaneously weep when weeping happens or stand with both arms reaching up or try to run, laughing, with the clowns.
The SFSymphony’s program on June 18 included three more Beethoven works including solo piano performed by Jonathan Biss and two choral works. Please watch this space for the Hedgehog Highlight about those performances. They were too wonderful to go unsung, and the Hedgehog tries to keep posts to lengths manageable for Hedgehogs.
The San Francisco Symphony will perform Symphony No. 5 again, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, June 27, on a program with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.23, and String Quartet in E-flat maj. Op. 74. On June 30, the SFS will perform Symphony No. 5, conducted by Edwin Outwater, on a program with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila, and pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the SFS. The Beethoven Festival also presents Beethoven’s only opera, FIDELIO, June 25, 26, & 28. For tickets and information: sfsymphony.org or call 415/864-6000 or visit the box office at Davies Symphony Hall, Grove St. between Van Ness & Franklin.