In a famous review of 1810 – a landmark in the history of music criticism – that weaver of fantastic tales ETA Hoffmann wrote that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ‘irresistibly sweeps the listener into the wonderful spirit-realm of the infinite’. Less poetically, the French composer Jean-François Le Sueur was so overwhelmed when he first heard the symphony that, on trying to put on his hat, he was unable to find his head. Others experienced variously alarm, shock, terror, excitement, bafflement. Goethe, in mingled astonishment and revulsion, deemed the work ‘a threat to civilisation’. Spohr called the finale’s triumphant C major blaze, stoked by a battalion of symphonic interlopers (piccolo, trombones, double bassoon), ‘blatant’ and ‘vulgar’. The vast dimensions and epic scope of the Eroica had already put Beethoven beyond the pale for many of his contemporaries. Now they had to contend with the violent, fanatically compressed assault of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, a Scherzo by turns spectral and savage, making a mockery of the word’s Italian meaning (no symphonic Scherzo before Bruckner’s Ninth is less jokey), and the eerily claustrophobic passage before the finale’s release into light.
Yet within the composer’s lifetime this music of terrifying power and exultation had already been enshrined as the archetypal Beethoven symphony and, following ETA Hoffmann, the harbinger of the new musical Romanticism. Its darkness-to-light, tumult-to-victory narrative, which Romantic symphonists would ape by the bushel, became an emblem of Beethoven’s own triumph over his inner struggles. Later generations appropriated the Fifth, along with the Eroica and the Ninth, to their own personal, political and social ends. In World War Two the four-note motto was a symbol of resistance to fascism. At the same time the Ninth Symphony was hijacked as a monument to pan-Teutonic culture. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, its choral finale – with the substitution of Freiheit (‘freedom’) for Freude (‘joy’) – was the only possible choice to celebrate the overthrow of Communism. Most recently, the Fifth Symphony’s motto has been subjected to countless kitsch transmogrifications, while the addition of a thrumming disco beat has turned the first movement into a popular hit.
The ‘heroic’ odd-numbered symphonies, especially, have always had their share of nay-sayers. There have been temporary dips in fashion, too. In the 1960s, Beethoven in strenuously affirmative vein was viewed with suspicion by an angst-ridden, Influenced generation that was just discovering Mahler. Yet today, in an age even more fractured and precarious, his ethically charged vision, presented with a force that so shocked his contemporaries, still speaks to a majority of music lovers with a directness and urgency unmatched by any other composer. The American musicologist Joseph Kerman has written tellingly of Beethoven’s ‘determination to touch common mankind as nakedly as possible’. History has vindicated him, triumphantly.
In the note for his recording of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel stresses Beethoven’s elemental impact – unmatched by that of any other composer – on a new generation: ‘This music is very important for young people. For all of humanity, of course, but for young people especially…The Fifth Symphony is not just about the notes…It is fate, it’s destiny and that is important for everybody…The symphony opens with anger. But if you play it all the way through, following the line of development, you come to the last movement, which ends with hope. You listen, you can feel this in the music. A lot of the children [in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra] come from the street…But when they play this music they have something special. They all share this hope. And it becomes something amazing.’
This redeeming power, ever more necessary in what Bernard Haitink called ‘these appalling times’, was a recurring motif of each of the conductors I spoke to who are either embarked on or have completed a symphony cycle. Like Dudamel, Osmo Vänskä stresses the topicality of the composer’s message. ‘This is immensely strong music, powerfully structured and covering every conceivable human emotion, from the deepest grief in, say, the Eroica Funeral March, to the wildest joy. Unlike Mozart’s and Schubert’s, his vision is overwhelmingly optimistic. And the world needs even more optimism than it did 200 years ago. For me Beethoven’s hope is real. We need his music every day, and it can change lives.’