Da – da – da – DUM…
The opening of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 1808 Fifth Symphony is arguably the most recognized four notes in musical history.
It was a victory symbol for the allies in WWII since the da-da-da-dum (or dot-dot-dot-dash) rhythm stands for the letter “V” in Morse Code.
It was included on the so-called Golden Record, an interstellar mixtape curated by Carl Sagan and shot into space, now well past our solar system and somewhere out there, in a galaxy far, far away.
Judd Nelson famously whistled The Fifth in The Breakfast Club.
Beethoven the St. Bernard barked it in the movie named for him.
And who could forget Walter Murphy’s 1977 disco instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven”? It was a staple at Tommy’s Roller Rink, the Winchester place to be in the early ’80s. When A Fifth of Beethoven came blaring over the loudspeaker, you got out of the way unless you could skate backwards like a boss.
Yet while it is clearly his most recognized work, I would argue it’s not his best work. That honor is reserved for Symphony No. 9, composed 16 years after the Fifth.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. Around age 26, he started to lose his hearing, probably from drinking cheap wine that had been fortified with lead. Afraid his musical career would end if people knew his secret, he continued performing and composing, even as his hearing grew worse. He devised ways to cope. He carried an ear trumpet. He banged harder on the piano, getting kicked out of numerous apartments when he didn’t realize what a racket he was raising playing at maximum volume.
As his hearing grew worse, he lost more and more notes in the higher frequency. Since the hair cells that perceive low-frequency sounds are located near the top of the ear’s cochlea, hearing loss typically occurs at higher frequencies first. Beethoven responded by creating compositions with more bass notes and fewer high notes, composing only in frequencies that he could hear. The Fifth Symphony was written during this period, composed in a dark and ominous C minor.
The volume knob on Beethoven’s life was turned ever downward until there was nothing left. But when God closes a door, he opens a window.
With no auditory feedback whatsoever, Beethoven had to rely solely on his imagination to compose. And it is no accident that the word imagination contains the root for the word magic.
Rather than holding him back, his complete hearing loss liberated him from the distractions of partial hearing loss. He was no longer held only to the lower frequency notes. He couldn’t hear any of the notes, so he could only imagine the composition, leading to music that would define him as one of the greatest composers in musical history.
Once Beethoven decided to lean fully into his disability, his high notes returned and his compositions flourished. And so the Ninth Symphony, written when Beethoven was completely deaf, stands as his most towering achievement. Symphony No. 9 is one of the first symphonies to include voices. It was longer and more complex than any symphony to date, requiring the largest orchestra Beethoven had ever worked with.
The Ninth is Beethoven’s most nuanced work, alternating between dark minor keys and joyous major keys. Because life – like music – needs complexity. We need the lows to better appreciate the highs. One without the other is tedious and dull.
When the Ninth debuted, Beethoven stood on stage and “conducted,” although the musicians had been instructed to ignore him and follow the actual conductor. As the orchestra got to the choral section in the final movement, adapted from the Friedrich Schiller poem Ode to Joy, the audience broke into applause. Beethoven, many bars off of the actual music at this point, remained unaware and continued waving his arms about until someone turned him around. As the audience knew he could not hear their applause, they instead threw their hats and handkerchiefs in the air. Then they did it again. Again. Five standing ovations in all.
There is magic in imagination. Feeling creativity stuck? Turn up the Ninth and let the inspiration roll.