Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Idle Thoughts on Two Symphonies

     Some time ago, there was some mention on the radio about a piano concerto, Beethoven, and the number five, and my father (who absolutely adores the Emperor Concerto) leapt at the chance to go. And so we got a phone call from my mother asking if we would like to go to symphony. Of course, when we got there, we found out that it was actually a Prokofiev piano concerto, and Beethoven’s 5th symphony, which was kind of a disappointment for my dad.
     But not for me. I don’t like to talk about favourites, because there are so many things to like about so many things, and I’d much rather talk about what I like about something than try to identify a favourite symphony or food or anything else. But Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies both come pretty close to what I’d call favourites, if I were forced to use that word. And they’re almost complete opposites, at least in the way I hear them.

     Consider the Fifth first. If you don’t know anything about classical music, you almost certainly know the opening bars of the fifth: da da da DUM! Well, this theme, this rhythm actually runs through all four movements of the symphony in various forms. I never noticed this until it was pointed out to me, many years ago in an introductory music appreciation course, but now it’s obvious. 
     For me, the Fifth is like someone explaining Newtonian physics. It starts with the bold, simple statement in four symbols: “F=ma”, which it repeats for emphasis: F is m a.  And then it illustrates with example after example after example, driving home the basic principle that force equals mass times acceleration.  In the first movement, it’s plain and obvious, like the ideal frictionless scenarios of introductory physics courses, but the motif appears in ever more subtle and complex guises in subsequent movements, as if showing how the complications of friction and gravity are really just special cases of the same basic principle. F is ma. It is a spectacular, brilliant, elegant truth that, once you learn how to look for it, is everywhere in everything. 

     While the Fifth is expository, exploring and explaining an explicit motif from the very beginning, the Ninth to me represents the process of discovering such a principle. It begins in somber D minor (the saddest key, as Nigel Tufnel observed) and seems to paint a mood of angst and despair. The world is a dark and dangerous place, life is scary and seems hopeless. But as the piece progresses, there are little hints here and there of hope, little snippets of the familiar Ode to Joy that will come. The melody emerges, not as a sudden epiphany but as a gradual realization, following subtle lines of inference to a conclusion that only seems obvious once you actually understand it, though once you do you marvel at how you could ever have failed to notice it. I’d mentioned in a previous blog post how I once fell asleep listening to the Ninth, and dreamed I had logically proved the existence and immortality of the soul; that’s the kind of triumphant joy I feel in the Ninth.


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