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Why Beethoven’s 5th Symphony matters in 2020

The final episode of Switched on Pop’s podcast The 5th considers the symphony’s legacy in 2020.

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An illustrated bust of Beethoven. Iris Gottlieb

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony traces a journey that the composer described as moving “from struggle to victory.” The work starts with a famously anguished opening melody and ends with a major-key tutti celebration.

In the first three episodes of the podcast series The 5th, from Vox’s Switched on Pop, the musicians of the New York Philharmonic deconstructed the symphony’s musical drama and legacy. In the fourth and final episode, key players in the contemporary orchestral landscape reflect on how the Fifth continues to shape our understanding of the world of classical music.

It’s a crucial time for such discussions, because classical music, like so many areas of US cultural life, has undergone what the Washington Post calls a “long overdue” reckoning in relation to race and gender in 2020. One pressing issue is whose works are being performed and commissioned — and whose are not. Last year, only 8 percent of pieces performed by major symphony orchestras were composed by women. The Institute for Composer Diversity polled 120 orchestral seasons and found that fewer than 6 percent of performed works were by composers from “underrepresented racial cultural and ethnic heritages.” This leaves classical institutions grappling with two sets of obligations that often seem in conflict: righting an inherited history of classical music, and preserving the repertoire of the symphonic tradition.

Beethoven himself had little to do with creating the narrow culture of classical music that developed in the centuries following his death in 1827. His politics tended toward the revolutionary; he declared in an 1819 letter that “freedom and progress” was the aim of his art. But Beethoven’s sheer popularity — in 2019, he was the most-performed composer around the world — has made him a de facto symbol of classical music.

With 2020 marking the composer’s 250th birthday, it’s an ideal time to rediscover the Fifth’s message of resilience and transformation, especially as classical institutions are working to mediate their goals of inclusion and preservation. As the New York Philharmonic’s CEO and president Deborah Borda says in The 5th, “one of the critical tasks in front of us as we guide these iconic artistic institutes is uncovering the right intersection between the social imperative and the artistic imperative.”

To that end, Borda and the Philharmonic have initiated the largest commissioning project for women composers in the orchestra’s history, Project 19. Nineteen women are creating original works for the orchestra to perform, including Tania León’s piece Stride, which was inspired by the life of Susan B. Anthony and premiered in February, right before the Covid-19 pandemic caused the Philharmonic to suspend its season.

Though the pandemic has put all orchestras, the Philharmonic included, in a perilous position, it has also highlighted how such institutions might rethink the conventions of classical music. With its concert hall dark, the Philharmonic is trying to reach new audiences through its Bandwagon project, for which the orchestra retrofitted a pickup truck to bring Philharmonic musicians to all five New York City boroughs to perform “pull-up” concerts. For this series, it has commissioned new works including the mesmerizing string trio Loop by Carlos Simon, recipient of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recognizing extraordinary classical Black and Latinx musicians.

In addition to increasing the representation of new composers, the Philharmonic is also commissioning new works that directly address classical music’s history. Last year, it premiered David Lang’s opera Prisoner of the State, which reworks Beethoven’s 1805 opera Fidelio to confront contemporary social issues. Lang fell in love with Fidelio — a work that is half prison drama and half comic love story — after seeing it in his 20s, but asked himself, “What would this piece be like if it didn’t pull its punches?” in addressing the darkness of the carceral state. With Prisoner of the State, Lang’s aim was to build on Beethoven’s work to create a beautiful, austere opera examining the emotional and political ramifications of imprisonment.

Lang traces his freedom to create and recreate back to Beethoven’s Fifth and the way the symphony’s opening melody (dun dun dun DUNNNN) becomes a throughline that spans the whole multi-movement piece. “This idea that you have something that happens at the beginning of the piece that you have to hold on to as a listener for an hour, that’s a revolutionary idea,” he says. “Beethoven invented that and we take it for granted now, so I think there’s a way in which everything that we do — including me writing a piece that challenges something from the past — shows that we have inherited this legacy from Beethoven.”

Lang’s view shows how Beethoven’s Fifth still matters in 2020, and the importance of listening to it deeply and critically. This mode of listening is what motivated The 5th, our effort to hear this inescapable symphony with fresh ears, aided by insights from musicians who know the piece inside and out.

Because no matter how many times they play it, the meaning of the piece continues to evolve.

New York Philharmonic horn player Leelanee Sterrett says that every orchestra member brings “a different interpretation to their parts each time.” When violinist and concertmaster Frank Huang performs the Fifth, he thinks about the wars and conflict raging in Europe while Beethoven composed: “To project this kind of triumph and joy ... you have to feel like he was expecting the best in people. He had to have so much optimism and hope ... to put something like that in music at that time.” For Huang, the work remains especially relevant given that “arguably, we’re kind of back in that similar environment these days.”

The Fifth is still essential listening because it carries an evergreen message of being unafraid to pursue the light during periods of darkness. For Anthony McGill, clarinetist and 2020 recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize for excellence and leadership in classical music, “this one, it wears well … it keeps its shine.”

Commissioning new works, taking them to the streets, reimagining the classical canon, and continuing to perform and listen to the Fifth anew all are part of an effort for classical institutions and audiences to move forward while honoring the past. This effort doesn’t tarnish Beethoven’s legacy — in fact, it celebrates a composer who wanted to break all the rules in pursuit of a better world.

Listen to how Beethoven’s Fifth isn’t just a museum piece, but a living testament to revolutionary creativity and addressing social issues, on Movement IV of The 5th, available now.

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