The 5th that hooked the world
“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”
— Ludwig van Beethoven
What makes some music soar while other music crashes? Why does this piece swing while that one hobbles? And even when music does get off the ground, why is it that certain of those that do fly span the stratosphere, while their humbler brethren barely clear the treetops?
Getting even more curious, why has posterity accorded the select few composers who have achieved such musical flight entry into the rarefied pantheon reserved for the musical immortals, while relegating so many others to the ranks of journeymen, worker bees and clones?
We hear endlessly of Beethoven — but what of his contemporary Anton Reicha? Or, for that matter, the heard-of but not that often heard Cherubini or Hummel? No, it’s the pantheon for old Ludwig, but the hoary archive shelves for his fellows.
Most of us might have a tough time pinning the ineluctable qualities of such special music down in words for, as they say, music begins where words leave off, but we know such music when we hear it.
Whatever else may be going on, the music gets our attention and keeps it; better than that, it sparks us with the hunger to hear more, to know what happens next and, when that “next” hits the air, to have it be a highly exciting, enjoyable moment, which creates further chain reactions on through to the end of the piece.
And the really strange, neat, unfathomable thing about all this is: when a composer does somehow manage to achieve this feat and create a musical flow that hooks us from the beginning and keeps us repeatedly hooked (and not just pleasantly ‘entertained) until the final chord, it’s virtually assured — money in the bank — that we have just a heard a piece that will endure the centuries.
Now I grant this may sound slightly simplistic and superficial on first hearing it but the phenomenon I glibly refer to as “hooking” possesses unexpectedly deep dynamics.
Let me try to explain. But, hating abstractions as I do, let’s zero in on a palpable, practical example, something almost all of us know, whether we want to or not; let’s take the world’s most archetypally “hooky” musical opening, which just happens to be followed by one of — if not the most — compelling symphonic movements in the history of all music: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Coincidentally, the Amherst College Department of Music will be presenting the Amherst Symphony Orchestra’s third installment of its year long series “Epic Journeys: Famous Fifth Symphonies,” Saturday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m., in Buckley Recital Hall in the Arms Music Center at Amherst College. Tickets are required and will be available for purchase at the door; seating is by general admission.
In addition, Amherst senior Josh Mayer will be the soloist in Antonio Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 498 and fellow senior Robert Flynn will be the soloist in Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, op. 73.
But back to Beethoven and his Fifth, whose first four fatal tones are indelibly imprinted into the DNA of half the brains in Western culture.
Orchestra (ominously): Da-da-da-DAA ... followed by a pregnant pause, during which brief interval our garden-variety music-lover gives simultaneous birth to a flock of possibilities:
“Hmm, mighty curious and a trifle unsettling, these four demanding blows on the door of my consciousness; not pretty, but arresting, not clear — could be the lower two tones of a major chord or, on a darker day, the upper two tones of a minor chord. He’s not giving away which; the nerve of the fellow! I could be listening to a decorous and elegant opening to a symphony by Mozart or Haydn — civilized gentlemen, both of them, who have the decency to let you know what key you’re in and whether the music is coming at you from Happyland or Sadland, the Dark Side or the Light. But not this Beethoven brute,no, he’s all thumbs, lacks the civility of talking to you in a recognizable and socially acceptable language and challenges you to make something out of these four, flat-footed barks. There isn’t even any harmony! Bare-boned and brusque. But, the piece is young, let’s hear what comes next ...”
Orchestra: (just as ominously, but lower and darker): Da-da-da-DAAA ...
Garden-variety-music-listener: “All right, we’re on the Dark Side in Badland, and it’s clear he’s not about to take us on a delightful stroll through the garden, so to speak. But what to call it? It’s not a melody, it’s not even a theme, it’s a grunt, a growl, a glower and, egad, still no harmony, still bald as a billiard ball! I’ve half a mind to leave. But, what with all this mystery and intrigue, I’ve got to stick it out just a tad longer to see what this excuse-of-a-composer thinks he’s up to ...”
Now, faster and more furiously, the orchestra machine-guns out a series of ricochetting variations on the four-note flurry — up, down, question, answer — layering upon itself in rapid succession, with, lo and behold, chords slipping in: the chase is on!
GVML: (unconsciously sliding forward toward the edge of his seat) Oh! What’s this, what’s this? There’s trouble afoot, I knew it! I can’t leave now, the plot thickens!
Orchestra: Two brusque, emphatic chords ...
GVML: Aha! That’s pretty conclusive ...
Orchestra: ... terminating with a third question-mark chord, yielding to a longer-held high note in the violins.
GVML: ... or is it?
Orchestra: The high note cuts off abruptly ... silence. Then, higher and fraught with more angst: Da-da-da-DAAA!, immediately pursued by more furtive, phantom-echoes of itself, but not quitting this time, instead plunging up a rocky incline toward a perilous precipice in the midst of a furious orchestral wind storm, nearly blown off its feet by the ever more imperious four-note blasts, morphing into five-note blasts with elongated tails, rising in pitch, until it enters the very eye of the storm.
GVML: (eyes dilating) I ... I dunno what’s going on, or how he’s doing it, but this is all too tantalizing and thrilling. I’m not going anywhere ’til it’s over!
Voila, “la Hook.”
And so, here you see, my friends, the art of a supreme musical dramatist at work, pulling all the right strings at all the places, like some musical Wizard of Oz, belching smoke and fire as well as magnificence from behind his magic curtains, not afraid to be brutal or primal when the drama requires it, after which his sheerly beautiful moments seem incalculably more beautiful.
And all this not just for one movement, but throughout the course of four — count them, four!
Ah, the edge of your seat never felt so good; catch it live, up front and dirty, while you may.
Tickets for Amherst Symphony Orchestra’s Dec. 8 performance are $10 for the general public; $5 for senior citizens, students with ID and children 12 and under; and free for Five College students with ID. Tickets can be purchased at the door beginning one hour prior to the performance.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.