A Fifth of Beethoven

Michael Reason

Yes, I am sure you can remember the classic disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy that gave a dance floor beat to Beethoven’s magnum opus and was used to great effect in Saturday Night Fever. One could argue, therefore, that the great Ludwig Van made a not insignificant contribution to the disco era even though he had been dead for 150 years.

When Beethoven composed his Fifth Symphony in the first decade of the nineteenth century he was going deaf. He couldn’t physically hear his own music. Yet the astonishing thing is that his Fifth Symphony has become the world’s most famous orchestral piece and everyone knows the opening theme: “da-da-da-DUM!” In fact, this musical signature has been used countless times in films, TV shows and even as a victory signal during World War II as “da-da-da-dum” stands for the letter V in Morse code. If that wasn’t enough, a recording of the first movement of the symphony is traversing the universe on board the Voyager spacecraft as a representative of humankind’s cultural achievements. Interstellar Beethoven.

So let’s delve back to the turn of the eighteenth century to see where all this came from. First of all, we have to figure out what makes this symphony so formidable. Is it that it embodies man’s triumph over adversity? Is it that it was so revolutionary that it changed the face of music forever? Or is it that it’s unique power reflected the societal upheaval that was prevalent at the time of its composition?

In essence, it really is a combination of all three and, of course, disco.

The symphony itself is in four movements, yet most people are only familiar with the opening movement, the “da-da-da-dum” one. This movement is one of hard knocks and many have commented that the first four notes symbolize fate banging at the door. The music is full of tension, like a wound-up spring that never relaxes. The tension is somewhat resolved in the second movement, but returns in the third movement with purpose. Then something miraculous happens. There is a very quiet, transformation section for strings and timpani which softly punctuates the “fate” theme until a massive crescendo is unleashed and the full orchestra launches into a blaze of glory that never lets go until the exhilarating end. In the space of 35 minutes we have moved from a bleak landscape of turmoil and anguish to one of victory, salvation and a belief in the optimism of the human spirit.

Why is this music revolutionary? Well, for the first time in symphonic composition there was a motif or short theme that starts the work and then is heard constantly, in various guises, throughout each movement. “Da-da-da-dum” is the glue that holds everything together musically. Never before had people heard this kind of thematic relationship in a symphony, or any other piece of music for that matter. It was a revolutionary idea that would change the face of music from its first performance in 1808 right through to the present day where film composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer use short thematic motifs to identify characters or settings in a movie. Star Wars is a perfect example of this.

Finally, when Beethoven composed this symphony, between 1804 and 1808, Europe was in great upheaval. The industrial revolution, which started in Britain around 1760, was working its way through Western Europe and Napoleon was fighting to dominate the same region. As a result, society was changing rapidly. Mechanization would change how people worked and its effects would enter every aspect of living. Cultural creativity would reflect this change in society and, in Beethoven’s case, his Fifth Symphony was the starting point for a musical revolution that still continues to this very day.

So where does Walter Murphy fit into all of this? Well, it’s a testament to the incredible vision that Beethoven created. Murphy knew that everyone had heard the “da-da-da-dum” theme of the Fifth Symphony, so he saw it as a way to make a hit record with a funky disco beat with no royalties payable and in the process make a ton of money. Poor Beethoven. He could have made a fortune.          However, Ludwig lives on forever in his music, and by contrast Walter will be consigned to the largely forgotten heap of artists who created one-hit wonders. Furthermore, Walter’s “Fifth” will only be revisited on reruns of Saturday Night Fever.

If you want to experience this great symphony live, the Lake Chapala Orchestra will be performing it at their concerts on March 31 and April 1 in Riberas. For further information email LCCOtickets@gmail.com.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Michael Reason
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