In 1954, the already-distinguished American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein appeared on the television program Omnibus to teach America about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor and the course of genius. Beethoven composed his most famous work over a four-year period in the very early 19th century, leaving behind a trail of discarded sketches and false leads, a stratum of drafts and assays as the first movement evolved obliquely toward what Bernstein characterizes again and again as the “rightness,” the “inevitability” and “the exactly right notes” of the allegro con brio as we know it.
Television effects at this time were primitive, of course, but theatrical effects were hardly so. The dapper and cute Bernstein paces in a moody, half-lit space, stalked by his own long shadow and treading upon a giant recreation of the score before settling in at the piano to play through and analyze the iterations of the first movement’s famous themes. In this fashion, two giants of music meet in an abstract, timeless space that must have looked, in 1954, like a pretty compelling representation of the interior of a shared genius: Leonard mind-melds with Ludwig, working like a good cognitive theorist through the choices made and ideas abandoned on the road to eternity.
Running through Bernstein’s empathic commentary is an assumption, common among composers, that composition is less invention, more discovery: that the famous Fifth already existed in some idealized Platonic form, awaiting a chosen one to bring it back alive, purified of human imperfection and transcription error. Its realization was less a feat of imagination, then, and more of a dogged determination not to settle for anything less than the perfection of “You’ll know it when you hear it.” Or rather, that’s what real imagination is: the conditioning, stamina and fitness to receive.
But if that is the case, what, then were all those discarded starts and near-misses? Brain static? Cosmic hurdles with a perverse or developmental purpose? By 1954, you’d think that Bernstein, the New York intellectual, would be a little more hip to the idea that at least part of that aura of inevitability is projected upon the work by us, conferred by cultural process over time. The Fifth Symphony “is what it is” and won’t be growing any new themes or movements anytime soon. The longer a work of art survives and the more it is attended, the more the immutability of the thing received morphs into that “this-and-no-other” sense of ineffable rightness. Of course, any work that survives and thrives long enough to attain this deific state must have some wonderful intrinsic qualities (or at least a great PR campaign).
Fittingly, Beethoven’s Fifth is often called the “Fate” symphony. Beethoven himself was rumored to have said that the iconic opening figure – dot dot dot DUH – was the sound of fate knocking on the door. Most people dismiss this idea nowadays, but certainly those four notes were the sound of Beethoven’s historical fate – which is to say, the fate of immortality – as he caught the tail of his biggest big idea.
The Hudson Valley Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony this Saturday, March 8 at 8 p.m. at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House; the program also includes Comet, a new piece by Hudson Valley composer George Tsontakis, and Ernest Bloch’s Suite 1919 for Viola and Orchestra, featuring Hudson Valley Philharmonic String Competition winner Michael Casimir on viola. Tickets cost $32 to $55, with student rush tickets available one hour prior to the concert for $20. Tickets can be purchased at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie; the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston; or through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com.
The Hudson Valley Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony & works by George Tsontakis and Ernest Bloch, Saturday, March 8, 8 p.m., Bardavon, 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie. $32 to $55, with $20 student rush tickets available one hour prior to the concert, (800) 745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com.