Reflections on the inauspicious debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the greatest single piece of music humanity has ever produced. I was, however, surprised to learn that this epochal work, rather than bursting successfully onto the world’s consciousness, had a problematic and stumbling debut and took years to be recognized. There is surely a lesson here for anyone attempting to create.

I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, along with his Fourth Symphony, at the Boston Symphony Orchestra last weekend. To be clear, I am no classical music buff, although it ought to be in my blood — my working-class, immigrant grandfather revered classical music and used to play it for us when our family visited him every weekend. Despite my ignorance, the performance moved me — the familiar music washed powerfully over a packed hall of people of all ages and modes of dress, sweeping us up in its emotion and creating awe that a human could have created it, and other humans could reproduce it at will, 210 years after its first performance.

I chanced to look up at the top of Boston Symphony Hall’s ornate proscenium arch and saw this:

Photo: 4Wall

It’s tough to see in the photo, but if you look close, there’s Beethoven’s name at the top center of the arch:

Photo: Betsy’s View

For just a moment, I contemplated the idea that workers went up 30 feet in the air and changed the name for each performance. But of course, they don’t. There is only one name on the stage: Beethoven’s. There is room for other names, but those building the hall could only agree on one name worthy of placing on the arch, and only one name appears.

As an artist, I had to know what happened with Beethoven’s Fifth. What was Beethoven thinking as he created it? Did he know it was destined for greatness? And how did the audience receive it?

Stumbling into greatness

Did Beethoven sit down and pen this masterpiece in one sitting, or perhaps in a week-long binge of creativity?

Not even close.

Beethoven started “sketching” the melodies in 1804 after completing his Third Symphony. Before getting back to the Fifth, he worked on the opera Fidelio, the Fourth Symphony (which doesn’t even come close to the Fifth for greatness), sonatas, string quartets, violin and piano concertos, and ideas that became his Sixth Symphony.

While there is no way to know, I’m sure that Beethoven was noodling around with ideas for elements of the symphony in between all of this other work.

The Fifth Symphony’s debut took place on December 22, 1808, in Vienna. Beethoven conducted. Here’s the set list:

  1. The Sixth Symphony
  2. Aria: Ah! perfido, Op. 65
  3. The Gloria movement of the Mass in C major
  4. The Fourth Piano Concerto (Beethoven performed this himself)
  5. The Fifth Symphony
  6. The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the C major Mass
  7. A solo piano improvisation, also performed by Beethoven
  8. The Choral Fantasy

So the Fifth wasn’t even the opening piece here, the Sixth was.

This program took four hours to perform. The unheated theater was freezing cold and the patrons were understandably grumpy. The Fifth debuted two hours into the program. There had been only one rehearsal, and the result was poor: Beethoven, conducting, actually stopped the performance partway through because of mistakes and started again from earlier in the score.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was very little critical praise for what NPR describes as “second-rate musicians playing in third-rate conditions after limited rehearsal.” But a year and half later, some critics started to lavish praise and the symphony got more attention, eventually earning the recognition it so richly deserves.

One wonders at how Beethoven himself felt about all this — he was clearly confident in his own abilities, even as his frustration rose with his own rising deafness. But the work persists. There is no disputing its impact.

Reflections on creation

The conventional narrative of creative greatness posits that inspiration falls from the sky, a muse lights up the artist’s brain, and that’s followed by a burst of creation. The fruits of that creation burst upon the world, which embraces, celebrates, and (these days) enthusiastically shares what they’ve seen.

Performance, creation, and sharing are different now. But inspiration isn’t. And it isn’t anything like what I just described.

I think people get ideas. Those ideas rattle around in their brains. The difference between people who know they are creative artists and those who aren’t is that the artists pay attention. They make notes — mental or actual — of the ideas. They pay attention to the ideas. Their brains are primed.

Regardless of whatever else the artist is working on (like Beethoven’s many other pieces), if an idea is sufficiently compelling, it lodges in the brain. Eventually, after going away and thinking about and doing other things for a while, when the artist comes back to the idea, it becomes possible to create something out of it.

Creation is a process of trial and error. It may or may not include collaboration, but it will surely include setbacks, self-doubt, revisions, “throwing it all away,” and eventually, the completion of the work.

As with the performance debut of Beethoven’s Fifth, all great art requires some collaboration to deliver. Even now, when anyone can create a blog or podcast or video themselves, it typically takes a little help from others to perfect, publish, perform, and promote that creation.

Launches matter. But as Beethoven’s launch demonstrates, if you can get a little attention, even a flubbed launch isn’t fatal. The key is to get someone — or a few someones — to pay attention to and appreciate what you have created. Their reviews get more people to pay attention and you may, if the work deserves it, get the recognition that the work deserves. Launches take place over a short period of time, but recognition can take months, years, or even longer.

I take heart from Beethoven’s Fifth. Art is a struggle. Launches are flawed. Recognition is a crap shoot. But if you are true to what you have created, and it resonates sufficiently with enough people, it will get there. Not even a frozen concert hall or a poorly rehearsed bunch of performers can stop it.

Here’s a question for you. Assume, for the sake of argument, that I’m right that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the greatest single piece of music ever created. But looking across all of music ever created in the history of the world, what do you think is second?

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  1. Gotta call you out: “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the greatest single piece of music humanity has ever produced” is a grandiose statement–especially from someone who (like me) is “no classical music buff.” Is this a test to see if we’re able to apply your editing principles?

    LIkewise, coming up with a ranking of “all of music ever created in the history of the world” is a massive ask. I’m not sure anyone is prepared to evaluate all music composed over millennia from all corners of the globe.

    I can say I’ve emotional pulls to music I think is great. Given exposure to more music–or better music, or better methods of evaluation–that would change.

    I do appreciate the bulk of your message regarding the creative process. Openness, patience, and persistence: yes, yes, and yes.

  2. I’ll comment only on the music: Josh, if you were moved by the Fifth, try to see a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.

    Then, attend performances of the others you haven’t seen: especially numbers 3, 6, 7 (the slow movement is played in The King’s Speech, during the speech scene), and 8.

    But if you have to choose only one to attend, see the Ninth. Worth every penny, every time.

    I think it’s impossible to rank or compare great compositions because there are too many variables: quality of the orchestra and recording, conductor style, “vibe” of the audience (which might affect the conductor style for a specific evening), acoustics, and even how musicians play the instrument (bowing style, intonation style, etc) .

    Even with a flubbed launch, a quality “product” (composition, book, etc) can hopefully reach an audience and stand the test of time.

  3. I won’t comment on the music – but I will comment on creativity. Elizabeth Gilbert has an interesting theory:

    “Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I’m talking about all ideas here: artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.) When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. . . . The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

    “And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, ‘Do you want to work with me?’ ”

    You can read that whole piece here:

  4. Try these other Beethoven works and see if you aren’t moved at least as much:

    • Coriolan Overture (Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Daniel Harding)
    • Violin Concerto, II. Larghetto (Yehudi Menuhin, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer)
    • Symphony 9, III. Adagio molto e cantabile (Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan)
    • String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1 ‘Adagio Affetuoso ed Appasionato’ (Prazak Quartet)
    • Piano Sonata 31, I. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo (Alfred Brendel)

  5. You can parody it, like adding lyrics to the music- “Wurlitzer Sale”, or pollute it by making it into a disco hit- “A Fifth of Beethoven” but what’s lasting is the the original and beautiful piece that is worth freezing your butt off for.

  6. hard to pick a second best piece – there are so many to choose from. If I had to choose, I’d choose Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony as I have always been a big fan of the whole romantic era in musical history. For third place, I’d choose almost any Bach musical composition, followed by Brahms, and Mozart. for six places, I’d choose the Grose fugue by Beethoven, seventh would be Beethoven’s Ninth and for tenth place Dvorak’s new world symphony.

    for the best rock band, I’d chose the Rolling Stones. For best blues, BB King, best country, Willie Nelson, best disco, Disco Inferno, best rap? I don’t know since I am not a big rap fan, best reggae, “Stir it Up”. Best American classical Rhapsody in Blue, and best funk, Tower of Power, “What is Hip”. and best rock guitarist Frank Zappa. Also for best underappreciated!

  7. Well, early in the mornin’ I’m a-givin’ you a warnin’
    Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes
    Hey diddle diddle, I am playin’ my fiddle
    Ain’t got nothin’ to lose
    Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news

    Chuck is the most influential songwriter and guitarist of our lifetime and Frank is the best musician of our lifetime. Second is for suckers. No one would be close to these folks.

    Bee is good as are all of the classical folks you have heard of. Frank had interesting observations on why the masters are played so much (their stuff is good, but so is so much more) compared to contemporaries and it was not pretty for the unionized musicians of today nor for the composers.

    Classical music is this music that was written by a bunch of dead people a long time ago. Frank

  8. A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick – a piece of Scottish Highland Bagpipe music as performed by the 78th Fraser Highlanders from Toronto, Canada.

    On amazon streaming.

    Known as Ceol Mor (Great Music) or Piobaireachd is considered the “classical” music of the bagpipes (vs. dances, marches or Ceol Beag (light music) developed later on. This was originally considered solo piper music and only recently has been played in groups with additional percussion.

    It’s only about 7 minutes long, but others in the genre can range up to 45 minutes, such as Lament for The Harp Tree (Bill Livingstone).

    Wild theories abound about how this type of music was developed in Scotland in the mid 1400-1600’s. One theory is that the MacCrimmons (one of the most influential families of pipers at the time) were actually from Cremona, Italy and were heavily influenced by the Renaissance music and incorporating theme and variations.

    Of course, like in all music, some of them are bad and you have to listen to reputable performers.