Beethoven Haus Bonn Public Domain
Three G’s and an E-flat, or Why Beethoven Rules!
By Richard Girard
Three G’s and an E-flat. Bom-bom-bom-Bomb! The Morse Code three dots and a dash for “V,” and “V” is for victory. Fate knocking on the door.
All of these descriptions have been used to describe the first four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And all of them are completely inadequate to describe the power and majesty of this orchestral masterpiece; or any of Beethoven’s other voluminous folio of work.
I have been listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony closely for over forty years, and I am still surprised at new discoveries almost every time I listen to this work of genius. This is the statement of a man who was very nearly deaf when he wrote this work, whose first movement is a shout of defiance at an implacable fate, whose final movement is the greatest statement of personal triumph of a man over the inevitability of loss ever made by a human being.
The body of Beethoven’s work is more than just his Fifth Symphony. Many would argue that Beethoven’s Ninth (The Chorale) is his greatest Symphony, others would argue for his Sixth (The Pastoral), the Third (The Eroica), or the Seventh (The Apotheosis of the Dance), as his best. But it is certain that no theme in Beethoven’s Symphonies is better known than those three G’s and an E-flat.
Beethoven began to go deaf in his late twenties, possibly from the effects of syphilis. As his deafness became more profound however, so did his music. By 1805 when his Third Symphony was first performed, he could only hear the very loudest sounds — such as the crescendo of an orchestra — or by the conduction of sound through his skull, by laying his head on the top of his pianoforte. Eight years later, when his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were premiered, even that was denied to him.
Beethoven’s music represents the triumph of a man who, because of his illness, was denied the joy of the music that he gave to the world, but gave that joy anyway. His music is freedom, compassion, and triumph over tragedy, hope, and a love offering to all of humanity. Beethoven purportedly stated that anyone who heard and understood his music would never be unhappy again. V.I. Lenin stated that he could not listen to Beethoven’s music: that it made him feel tender with compassion that was contrary to what was needed to carry out the revolution.
No revolution is worth denying yourself Beethoven. His music is liberation. And hope.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is opus 67; his Sixth Symphony is opus 68. These two amazing works are cataloged one right after the other in the Maestro’s collection of musical works. I always play the two symphonies together, just as they were heard for the first time in Vienna in December, 1808. I listen first to the Fifth, and then the Sixth.
If you play them together–first the Fifth, and then the Sixth–they blend together into a giant orchestral work of struggle, triumph, liberation, celebration, reaffirmation of liberation, and finally, Peace. The first CD collection I ever bought was Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s 1962 recordings of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. I spent forty dollars on it in 1992; money that I have always felt was well spent.