Should you attend this weekends Fort Wayne Philharmonic performance at the Embassy Theatre, prepare yourself to hear three dentists discussing the worst impacted wisdom teeth they've seen. Oh, you'll also get to hear the most famous musical theme in classical music.
The theme of which I speak, or write, is the opening four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony, perhaps the most widely recognized symphony ever written. You know, the one that starts with da-da-da-daaa. This little four-note motif has been used in ELO's hit "Roll Over Beethoven" as well as the movie The Longest Yard (the 1974 Burt Reynolds film with gratuitous slow-mo). And let's not forget the nauseating disco version on Saturday Night Fever (excuse me while I flashback to my days of yore, clad in bell bottoms, my hair in a fro... wait a minute! I was only seven! Man, I gotta cut back on my caffeine).
What kind of mind could create such a simple yet universal theme? From whence doth such thoughts spring? Well let me tell you! Ludwig van was born in Germany in 1770. His father was a mediocre musician (not that I'm detracting from this man... I myself am a mediocre musician... a mediocre lover... a lousy welder... but I digress) who wanted his son to be a child prodigy like the great Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart and thus started him on the piano at such a young age that Ludwig had to stand on a stool just to reach the keys. His father also told everyone that Ludwig was two years younger than he really was just to add a bit more zing to the show. This man also sold used carriages. So it was under the tutelage of his father that the young Beethoven grew, but not very much as he never grew any taller than five feet four inches tall. But if you ran into Beethoven back in the 1800s I would say to you, "What in tarnation are you doing in the 1800s? For crying out loud, they don't even have quilted Charmin!" Then I would suggest that you treat Beethoven with great respect, or even better yet, steer quite clear of him for this man had a sizzling hot temper! One violinist who had the misfortune to complain about a particularly difficult passage was reprimanded with "I can't think about your miserable violin when I am speaking to my God!" Here we see one of the more polite retorts issued from this diminutive giant. I would also recommend that you not invite Beethoven to your house because he was a slob of such proportions that my old college roommates appear to be Felix Unger in comparison. He would scribble compositional notes on tablecloths, walls, shirts, your new book of aardvark haiku, ANYTHING! It was not uncommon to find a full chamber pot under his piano, especially when important nobles came to visit. Need I say more?
I can hear you thinking now, "So this is all fine and good, but why is this piece so dang gummed popular, I mean, aside from that great opening line and I can't believe the line Fred used on that waitress. Good old Fred. Doesn't he owe me twenty bucks? And why do I have the creepy feeling that someone is listening in on my thoughts in a vain attempt to fill an 800 word article?" I'm glad you asked, mostly because I have about 300 words left and we really shouldn't get into the later exploits of Fred. There are many reasons why this piece has left such an astounding impression throughout the ages. For instance, never before had anyone taken a single theme and worked it through all four movements of the symphony, entering mysteriously here, being alluded to there, violently intruding during your dinner party wearing only a pair of bunny slippers and carrying a can of corned beef hash. If you listen, you will hear the short-short-short-long motif bandied about from start to finish. Beethoven employed orchestration techniques that today seem commonplace but at the time were all new, original, and magical. What's more, not only does the symphony begin with that amazingly intense opening but Beethoven somehow sustains this unrelenting tension and forward motion throughout the entire thirty minute piece! After the invigorating first movement, the second movement's lyrical melodic line sharply contrasts the spasmodic proceeding music. The third movement begins mysteriously until the horns blast out the opening motif, adding tension upon tension until the entire piece overflows into the final movement... and the atom bomb explodes. Viennese gossip-mongers allege that at the premier of this piece in 1808, Beethoven conducted with such wild gestures that he knocked over a couple of lamps and accidentally slapped a choirboy in the face. I doubt Maestro Tchievzhel will do the same but I think I'll show up in the hopes that he does! In fact, I'm bring my own lamps and choir boys! Um, forget about that last part.
Copyright 2000 Jason Hoffman