Beethoven's Fifth: Is that fate knocking at the door?

By by Dianna Wray
Feb. 22, 2012 at 3 p.m.
Updated Feb. 21, 2012 at 8:22 p.m.


Beethoven is my Achilles heel. Seriously, if that famous deaf German genius of a composer was alive, I could overlook all of the bad table manners and awkward yelled conversations in the world to get to hang out with him.

In his time, he was a trailblazer, one of the first musicians who insisted that his patrons treat him as an equal rather than a servant (in a era when even Mozart had a social position just a smidge above that of "The Help").

The reason Beethoven got away with it? Well, he was a rockstar of the age and he knew it. His music gets at those things inside us, the emotions that grip us deeply but are, for many, inexpressible. Ludwig Van B. could express them.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is possibly one of the most famous works in the world. You may not know a symphony from a Lady Gaga song, but odds are good you'll recognize those opening notes - da da da daaaaah.

Beethoven was a meticulous composer and it took him about four years to complete his fifth symphony. His assistant, Anton Schindler, claimed that the composer described those distinctive opening notes as the sound of fate banging on the door. Beethoven did say something like that in a letter, but it's impossible to know if he really said that about the theme.

What I love about Beethoven, the thing that really pulls at me, is how human he was. While it's obvious he was a genius - the Ninth Symphony is proof enough of that - he was also a man who could be moody and hard to deal with, even while writing music that wrenched at your soul.

In the wake of his death, as is too often the case, people began making him less human, more of an all-knowing figure in the stories they told. They tried to make him a saint, but to do that is to miss what makes him fascinating. He was just a man, with all of the tempers, frustrations, longings and loves that we are capable of in the course of life.

Do I think he really did turn to his assistant one day and say, "That symphony is about fate knocking on the door," his hair a picturesque mess while his eyes burned into the distance? Maybe. But what's great about him is he may very well have said it while thumbing through a newspaper or after gulping from a goblet of wine. His music was something above it all, but he was real.

If you've a hankering to hear it, the Houston Symphony is performing the Fifth Symphony. Go check it out.



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