In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth
During the first movement of the first performance of Beethoven’s third symphony (April 7, 1805), it is reported that a man cried out from the balcony, “I would give my last pfennig if only they would make it stop!”
Beethoven lived and worked (yes, composing is work) at a time when the revolutionary spirit of the French revolution was both frightening and fashionable — the “radical chic” of its day. It was possible for him to compose, publish, and have music performed that was radically new and revolutionary in spirit. His third symphony is his first symphony to exemplify this new spirit.
For one thing, the first movement is unusually long. When the first section is repeated (as indicated by the composer, but not always performed), the movement is over 17 minutes in duration. By comparison, the first movement of his own fifth symphony is about seven minutes long, and Mozart’s 25th symphony — all four movements — is 19 minutes in duration, only two minutes longer than this one Beethoven movement.
For another thing, this symphony has an awesome range of expression. Words are, of course, inadequate. And, as if the first movement hadn’t covered the entire gamut of human experience, the second movement is a funeral march that takes us through several more dimensions of expression. And then there is the wild third movement, and the fourth movement. Imagine audiences of the time, accustomed to delightful symphonies barely 20 minutes in length altogether, being subjected to almost an hour of heretofore unheard extremes of emotional intensity. “Please make it stop!” But, to their credit, they recognized the serious purpose and magnificent gifts of Beethoven, and stuck with it.
There is a moment in the first movement when (to my ears) the symphony first starts to really go off the reservation. Up to that point, it seemed as if the music was on track to return to the main theme shortly, but then the music ventures into realms of desolation and fear, intense pounding, and — at the climax — unbearable pain. I find it difficult to imagine that the performers and audiences of that time would not have screamed. (Apparently, someone did.)
The part in question starts at about 8:10 and continues through about 9:15 (at which point Beethoven introduces a new and somewhat plaintive theme). Even after that, Beethoven keeps teasing us and tantalizing us before bringing the main theme back at 11:36. Even then, he has the horn come in (as if by impatient mistake) a bit too early.
Remember to turn the volume UP. This is a full symphony orchestra, and in a live performance there is no volume control. Also, I love these graphics. Fun to watch. Better than the foolish and fraudulent cultural paraphernalia thrown at us in live performances and videos of orchestras performing. Or images of some white guy supposed to be Beethoven. Also, our ancestors had copies of Plato, Euclid, Aristotle, and others, in Arabic translations — which pre-dated the translations into Latin and modern European languages — as well as translated into Fula, Hausa, and Mandinka languages. I’m just learning these things. (Most recently from Servants of Allah by Sylviane A. Diouf.)
Volume UP. Listen ATTENTIVELY. To the WHOLE THING. (Only the strong survive.)
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