I can name that tune in four notes. But then, so can almost everyone else in the Western world.
Da-da-da-dah. Those first four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, proclaimed by some to be the knock of fate on the door, is undoubtedly the most instantly recognizable motif in all of music. But perhaps because of its iconic stature and its immense familiarity—and in spite of the false impression that it is overplayed—the symphony itself is actually programmed less often by orchestras than one might think. Although recordings certainly abound, I submit that many classical music listeners have heard live performances of it rarely, if at all.
The University of Tennessee Symphony seeks to rectify that oversight in this Sunday’s opening concert of its 2008–2009 season. Under conductor James Fellenbaum, the orchestra will present the first of two concerts this fall under the title “A Beethoven Celebration,” marking the 200th anniversary of the first performance of the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
Sketchbooks indicate that Beethoven began work on the symphony as early as 1804, a good four years before its premiere in Vienna in 1808. The premiere itself was part of a taxing, under-rehearsed four-hour concert that also included the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, parts of the Mass in C major, and piano improvisation by Beethoven himself, and ended with the Choral Fantasy. In spite of that difficult and inauspicious beginning, the Fifth Symphony rapidly achieved a prominence with major orchestras around the world. Not the least of these was America’s oldest orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, which opened its first-ever concert in 1842 with the Fifth.
However, its popularity and its familiarity (to the point of cliché) have probably deadened many listeners to the magnificence of its design and construction. An example of this brilliance is Beethoven’s use of the famous opening motif throughout the work, but in different forms. In the Scherzo-Allegro third movement, the horns blare out their version, followed by the full orchestra. The Scherzo moves without pause into the Fourth movement, where all four movements are brought together in a grand unification. The finale, having moved from C minor to C major, and brightened by the addition of trombones and piccolos, ends triumphantly.
While the horns and cellos have important—and exposed—passages, Beethoven provided plenty of challenges for almost every section of the orchestra. Fellenbaum feels confident that his orchestra can meet those challenges. “Now that the orchestra has grown to a certain stature where they can tackle some of this repertoire, I think the Beethoven Five is something I can program here every four or five years,” he says. “I felt coming into this year, it was time. And it is a good, substantial piece that these guys need to play. This is a kind of meat-and-potatoes concert, but it really is ‘meat and meat.’ The Brahms is also one of those pieces.”
Filling out Sunday’s concert program is Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, written in 1880 as a thank you in musical form to the University of Breslau for awarding him an honorary doctorate in music. Brahms obviously didn’t hesitate to pull the noses of the academicians—he termed the piece “a very boisterous potpourri of student songs.” In fact, four traditional student drinking tunes are woven through the intricate orchestral construction with humorous intent and results. The first of these is “We have built a stately house.” After a bit of development, the lyrical tune “The Father of Our Country” is heard, followed by a freshman’s song known as “The Fox-Ride.” However, not the least of these light-hearted tweaks is the Finale, structured around “Gaudeamus igitur,” often heard in university graduation ceremonies but used this time in an almost raucous way for ironic effect, as it roars to a joyful and rousing conclusion.
In finding a concert companion piece for the Beethoven, Fellenbaum settled on the Academic Festival Overture after considering others of similar length. “I thought about the Tragic Overture of Brahms, because it’s a little easier, but I thought, these guys have come a long way, so let’s do the Academic Festival Overture because, among other reasons, we’ve got a great trumpet studio, Cathy Leach’s trumpets are always really good, and the trumpets have a lot to say in this piece,” Fellenbaum says.
Fellenbaum’s confidence is well grounded. In the five years since his arrival as director of orchestras, his orchestra has grown visibly in ability and capability. So much so that it isn’t a reach today to call the UT Symphony Knoxville’s other symphony orchestra.