The first thing to do on arriving at a symphony concert is to express the wish that the orchestra will play Beethoven’s Fifth. If your companion then says “Fifth what?” you are safe with him for the rest of the evening; no metal can touch you. If, however, he says “So do I”—this is a danger signal and he may require careful handling.
—Donald Ogden Stewart, Perfect Behavior (1922)
Jean-François Le Sueur was not quite sure what to make of Beethoven’s Fifth. Le Sueur was a dramatic composer, a specialist in oratorios and operas, and the Parisian taste for such fare (along with Le Sueur’s career) had persisted from the reign of Louis XVI through the Revolution, through Napoléon, through the Restoration. For audiences suddenly to be whipped into a frenzy by instrumental music—as they were in 1828, when a new series of orchestral concerts brought Paris its first sustained dose of Beethoven’s symphonies—was something curious. Le Sueur, nearing seventy, was too refined to fulminate, but he kept a respectful distance from the novelties—that is, until one of his students, an up-and-coming enfant terrible named Hector Berlioz, dragged his teacher to a performance of the Fifth. Berlioz later recalled Le Sueur’s postconcert reaction: “Ouf! I’m going outside, I need some air. It’s unbelievable, wonderful! It so moved and disturbed me and turned me upside down that when I came out of my box and went to put on my hat, for a moment I didn’t know where my head was.”
Alas, in retrospect, it was too much of a shock: at his lesson the next day, Le Sueur cautioned Berlioz that “All the same, that sort of music should not be written.”
In 1920, Stefan Wolpe, then an eighteen-year-old student at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, organized a Dadaist provocation. He put eight phonographs on a stage, each bearing a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He then played all eight, simultaneously, with each record turning at a different speed.
A socialist and a Jew, Wolpe would flee Nazi Germany; he eventually ended up in America, cobbling together a career as an avant-garde composer and as a teacher whose importance and influence belied his lack of fame. (The jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, shortly before he died, approached Wolpe about lessons and a possible commissioned piece.) In a 1962 lecture, Wolpe recalled his Dada years, revisiting his Beethoven collage; in a bow to technological change, this performance used only two phonographs, set at the once-familiar 33 and 78 r.p.m. Wolpe then spoke of “one of the early Dada obsessions, or interests, namely, the concept of unforeseeability”:
That means that every moment events are so freshly invented,
so newly born,
that it has almost no history in the piece itself
but its own actual presence.
. . .
If today we regard Le Sueur’s frazzled confusion as quaint, it is at least in part because of the subsequent ubiquity of the Fifth Symphony. The music’s immediacy has been forever dented by its celebrity. Wolpe’s eightfold distortion can be heard as a particularly outrageous attempt to re-create Le Sueur’s experience of the Fifth, to conjure up a time when the work’s course was still unforeseeable. It is an uphill battle—in the two centuries since its 1808 premiere, Beethoven’s Fifth has become so familiar that it is next to impossible to re-create the disorientation that it could cause when it was newly born.
The disorientation is built right into the symphony’s opening. Or even, maybe, before the opening: the symphony begins, literally, with silence, an eighth rest slipped in before the first note. A rest on the downbeat, a bit of quiet, seems an inauspicious start. Of course, every symphony is surrounded by at least theoretical silence. Though, in reality, preconcert ambient noise, or at least its echoes—overlapping conversations, shifting bodies, rustling programs, air-conditioning, and so on—may in fact bleed into the music being performed, we nonetheless create a perceptive line between nonmusic and music, enter into a conspiracy between performers and listeners that the composer’s statement is self-contained, that there is a sonic buffer zone between everyday life and music. (Like most conspiracies, it thrives on partial truths.) The obvious interpretation is that silence functions as a frame for the musical object. The less obvious (and groovier) interpretation is that the music we hear is but one facet of the silence it comes out of.
This is almost certainly not what Beethoven was thinking about when he put a rest in the first measure of the Fifth Symphony. But, were Beethoven really trying to mess around with the boundary between his symphony and everything outside of it, he would have been anticipating the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the guru of deconstruction, by nearly two hundred years. Derrida talks about frames in his book The Truth in Painting, noting that when we look at a painting, the frame seems part of the wall, but when we look at the wall, the frame seems part of the painting. Derrida terms this slipstream between the work and outside the work a parergon: “a form which has as its traditional determination not that it stands out, but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy.”
Our minds dissolve the frame as we cross the Rubicon into Art. But Beethoven drags the edge of the frame into the painting itself, stylizing it to the point that, for anyone reading the score, at least, this parergon refuses to go quietly, as it were. Beethoven waits until we’re ready, then gruffly asks if we’re ready yet.
We can see the silence on the page, in the form of the rest. But do we hear it in performance? The rest completes the meter of 2/4—two beats per measure, with the quarter note getting the beat—which, normally, would mean that the second of the three following eighth notes would get a little extra emphasis. But most readings give heavy emphasis to all three eighth notes, steamrolling the meter (which is really only one beat to a bar anyway—more on that in a minute). Paleobotanist, artist, and sometime composer Wesley Wehr recalled one consequence of such steamrolling:
Student composer Hubbard Miller, as the story goes, had once been beachcombing at Agate Beach. He paused on the beach to trace some musical staves in the sand, and then added the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Hub had, however, made a slight mistake. Instead of using eighth notes for the famous “da, da, da, dum!,” Hub had written a triplet. He had the right notes, but the wrong rhythm—an easy enough mistake for a young lad to make. Hub looked up to find an elderly man standing beside him, studying the musical misnotation. The mysterious man erased the mistake with one foot, bent down, and wrote the correct rhythmic notation in the sand. With that, he smiled at Hub and continued walking down the beach. Only later did Hub learn that he had just had a “music lesson” from Ernest Bloch.
Knowledge of the rest is like a secret handshake, admission into the guild. (Bloch, best known for his 1916 cello-and- orchestra “Rhapsodie hébraïque” Schelomo, was also a dedicated photographer who liked to name his images of trees after composers: “Bloch sees ‘Beethoven’ invariably as a single massive tree appearing to twist and struggle out of the soil.”)
Indeed, one practical reason for the rest is to reassure the performers of the composer’s professionalism. Beethoven knew that any conductor would signal the downbeat anyway, so he put in the rest as a placeholder for the conductor’s gesture. And it’s liable to be a fairly dramatic gesture at that. The meter indicates two beats to the bar, but no conductor actually indicates both beats, as it would tend to bog down music that needs speed and forward momentum. Instead, the movement is conducted “in one,” indicating only the downbeat of every bar.
So the conductor has one snap of the baton to get the orchestra up to full speed. And the longer the Fifth Symphony has retained its canonical status, the more that task has come to be seen as perilous. For the two leading pre–World War I pundits of conducting, Richard Wagner and Felix Weingartner, starting the Fifth was no big deal. Wagner takes ignition for granted, being far more concerned with the lengths of the subsequent holds, while Weingartner scoffs at his colleague Hans von Bülow’s caution: “Bülow’s practice of giving one or several bars beforehand is quite unnecessary.” But jump ahead to the modern era, and one finds the British conductor Norman Del Mar warning of “would-be adopters of the baton” suffering “the humiliation of being unable to start the first movement at all.” Gunther Schuller, American composer and conductor, is equally dire, calling the opening “one of the most feared conducting challenges in the entire classical literature.” Del Mar reaches this conclusion: “It is useless to try and formulate the way this is done in terms of conventional stick technique. It is direction by pure force of gesture and depends entirely on the will-power and total conviction of the conductor.”
It is only a coincidence that the eighth rest resembles the trigger of a starter’s pistol:
Beethoven was known for being moody and intolerant long before he began to lose his hearing. Apparently he was just as pissed off by what he could hear as by what he could not.
—Paula Poundstone, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say
If only for the blink of an eye, the eighth rest leaves the symphony hanging in fraught silence, a condition that, even at the time of the Fifth’s premiere, was already becoming attached to the Beethoven mythos. The fame of the Fifth Symphony has its biographical match in Beethoven’s deafness.
Beethoven first noticed a deterioration in his hearing sometime in his twenties; when, in 1801, he first broached the subject in letters to close friends (“I beg you to treat what I have told you about my hearing as a great secret,” he wrote to the violinist Karl Amenda, underlining the request for emphasis), he had already been seeing physicians about it for at least a year. The initial symptoms were those of tinnitus—buzzing and ringing in the ears, a sensitivity to loud noises. (“[I]f anybody shouts, I can’t bear it,” he complained.)
It would be difficult to overestimate how disconcerting the onset of such a condition must have been to the young Beethoven, especially at that point in his career, having moved to the cultural metropolis of Vienna, on the precarious cusp between notoriety and lasting success. But it is also important to note that—contrary to much popular opinion—even at the time he was composing the Fifth Symphony (1804 to 1808, on and off), Beethoven could still hear fairly well, at least well enough to conduct the 1808 premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and then write his publisher about correcting the score: “When I gave these works to you, I had not yet heard either of them performed—and one should not be so like a god as not to have to correct something here and there in one’s created works.” His fellow composer-pianist Carl Czerny reported that Beethoven “still heard speech and music perfectly well until at least 1812.” While that optimistic characterization is more likely a testament to Beethoven’s adjustment to his infirmity, it’s clear that the Fifth Symphony was not born out of an absolute pathological silence.
Tracing the progression of Beethoven’s deafness is difficult not just because of Beethoven’s own tendency to overdramatize his affliction, but also because of the tendency of his friends and acquaintances to attribute to deafness symptoms that might just as easily be traced to another underlying condition: that of, well, being Beethoven. In 1804, Stephan von Breuning writes to a mutual friend that as a result of Beethoven’s “waning of hearing . . . [h]e has become very withdrawn and often mistrustful of his best friends, and irresolute in many things!” But, as biographer Maynard Solomon reminds us, the withdrawal, mistrust, and retreat from everyday concerns were there all along: “During his childhood, Beethoven often wrapped himself in a cloak of silence as a shield against both the vicissitudes of external reality and the traumatic events within his family constellation.” Pushed forward as a Mozart-like prodigy by his alcoholic, dissolute, abusive father, Beethoven retreated into solitude and daydreaming, the defense of a figurative deafness, well before any literal manifestation.
If the onset of hearing loss fed into Beethoven’s penchant for isolation, his penchant for isolation may have, in turn, fed an exaggerated sense of the extent of his deafness. Recent proposed guidelines for tinnitus diagnosis include the reminder that “it has become clear in recent years that the ‘problem’ of tinnitus relates far more to the individual’s psychological response to the abnormal tinnitus signal than to the signal itself. . . . [I]n some cases the altered mood state predates tinnitus onset . . . making it difficult to know whether tinnitus causes psychological disturbance, or whether psychological disturbance facilitates the emergence of tinnitus.”
Nevertheless, the adaptability of so much of Beethoven’s middle-period “heroic” output to narratives of crisis and triumph has contributed to a popular sense that his deafness was sudden and total, rather than gradual. One finds it in an entry from an American music-lover’s diary, published in Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1853: “[Beethoven] was deaf, poor man, when he wrote the 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Symphonies. Deaf when he composed ‘Fidelio,’ ‘The Ruins of Athens,’ the two Masses, &c.”
The unidentified diarist was actually Alexander Wheelock Thayer, who would later undertake extensive research in Germany and Austria and produce a pioneering Beethoven biography, the first volume of which appeared in 1866; based on Thayer’s findings, most critics and scholars would adopt a more nuanced view of Beethoven’s deafness. But the story of a stone-deaf Beethoven and his dauntless musical response was too good, too inspirational, not to survive. The American composer Frances McCollin, for example, blind from the age of five, took powerful inspiration from the story, starting when she attended a dress rehearsal for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s inaugural concert in 1900: “[S]he heard the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which made her think of the deaf Beethoven and she burst into tears.” McCollin’s story echoes one from the six-year-old Clara Schumann—who, for reasons similar to Beethoven’s, was so withdrawn as a child that her parents thought she, too, might be deaf—noting in her diary, “I heard a grand symphony by Beethoven which excited me greatly.”
The image of a young, completely deaf Beethoven gained a foothold in children’s literature, offering an educational example of human perseverance (and, maybe, playing on a child’s delight in paradox: a composer who can’t hear). McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader included an excerpt from Harriet Martineau’s The Crofton Boys, in which young Hugh Proctor’s mother tries to console him after he has had his foot amputated:
“Did you ever hear of Beethoven? He was one of the greatest musical composers that ever lived. His great, his sole delight was in music. It was the passion of his life. When all his time and all his mind were given to music, he suddenly became deaf, perfectly deaf; so that he never more heard one single note from the loudest orchestra. While crowds were moved and delighted with his compositions, it was all silence to him.” Hugh said nothing.
Even today, one can still find the myth perpetuated here and there.
As an up-and-coming composer and performer, Beethoven probably feared that common knowledge of his encroaching deafness would have hindered his career prospects. The opposite occurred, as it turned out: within his own lifetime, Beethoven’s deafness became a celebrated element in the reputations of both the composer and his music. A snippet of that celebrity is preserved in the conversation books, the trove of one-sided table talk from Beethoven’s later years, when guests the first four notes would jot down their share of the discussion on paper. During one chat, Beethoven’s nephew Karl informs his uncle of popular perception: “Precisely because of [your deafness] you are famous. Everyone is astonished, not just that you can compose so well, but particularly that you can do it in spite of this affliction. If you ask me, I believe that it even contributes to the originality of your compositions.”
On this occasion, Beethoven seems to have taken his nephew slightly to task for overdetermining the nature of his genius, but there is some evidence that it was Beethoven himself who planted the seed of that astonishment and fame. By the time of the Fifth’s premiere, Beethoven had come to terms with his deafness enough to stop concealing it and to start even subtly advertising it, writing a note to himself in one of his sketchbooks to “let your deafness no longer be a secret—even in art.” The musicologist Owen Jander went so far as to reinterpret the Fifth Symphony in light of this self-admonition, making it not just a metaphorical struggle with infirmity, but, at least in the slow march that permeates the third and part of the fourth movements—a march built out of the symphony’s opening motive—a musical re-creation of the experience of deafness. The third movement’s translation of its theme into a desaturated skeleton of pizzicato strings, Jander suggested, was meant to simulate the composer’s increasingly hazy sense of hearing.
If the Fifth Symphony is about Beethoven’s deafness, then what could we read into its opening rest? A brief jolt of the experience of deafness, perhaps—a deployment of great energy that remains bereft of sound. Or maybe a remembrance and a reminder: a moment of silence for Beethoven’s hearing.
Excerpted from The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Guerrieri. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.