Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, explained

We know Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony like we know the Top 40 — that striking opening melody of dun dun dun DUNNNN that builds in tempo and volume to a climactic restatement, leaving the listener in suspense. We’ve heard it in films and commercials. It’s been parodied in Saturday morning cartoons and disco-ized in Saturday Night Fever. The Fifth is a given, so much so that it blends into the background.

But how well do we really know this practically omnipresent piece of music? What’s so special about those famous opening notes? Of all the symphonies of the bewigged classical “greats,” why is this one still stuck in our heads more than two centuries later?

We’re trying to answer these questions by giving Beethoven’s symphony the same treatment we give to pop songs by artists like Drake and Billie Eilish on our podcast Switched on Pop — this time with the accompaniment of the New York Philharmonic. The 5th, a new four-part series, breaks down the music and meaning of this inescapable symphony so that we can hear it with fresh ears.

In the first episode, which you can listen to now, we talk to the musicians of the Philharmonic about how the symphony’s stormy first movement come to life. The orchestra has performed the Fifth almost 900 times since they debuted it in the US in 1842, so they know their way around it. Conductor Jaap van Zweden told us he feels the weight of that history every time he lifts his baton. “If you work with the New York Philharmonic, this piece is in their DNA from the first day they started to play concerts … it’s like a bloodline.”

Even so, every time the orchestra performs this work, there’s a tension in the air. Those opening notes are always “a very tricky moment” for van Zweden. More than 60 musicians have to come in together perfectly. They have to nail that famous theme, because the whole symphony is riding on them.

According to van Zweden, this is “the most important thing when I walk onstage,” that the piece “should be one long line till the last note of the last movement … it is like almost one sentence.” He wants the audience on the edge of their seat, paying attention to each twist and turn in an instrumental epic.

If they get it right, van Zweden and his musicians create the start of a musical drama that ricochets between victory and defeat over four movements. To hear it, we have to listen like a pop fan from the 1800s, to translate the symphony’s abstract melodies into heroes and villains.

When the drama of the symphony comes into focus, we can better assess what it means to us today, and decide how we want to commemorate a composer who represents liberation and resilience for some, elitism and exclusion for others. The Fifth is the key to unlocking Beethoven’s complicated legacy — and it all starts with the first four notes. Dun dun dun DUNNN.

The first episode of The 5th is available now.

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