This weekend, the Amherst Symphony Orchestra embarks on a seemingly herculean task, a series of 5th symphonies including those of Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Shostakovich. These are some of the most well known, loved and studied pieces for any orchestra to tackle, making for an exciting and substantial season. With so much attention given to these works, it is a brave undertaking.
While it may seem to be a curious incidence that the number 5 constitutes so many well known, substantial and profound examples of symphonic literature in classical music, it is really no surprise at all. In fact, the reason can be reduced to four onomatopoeic words: Bam bam bam buuuuuuum. These four notes constitute possibly the most well known tune in all of music, that of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Its heavy and imposing opening four notes have echoed throughout culture for centuries, causing irrevocable change in all music to come. Beethoven expressed himself as a revolutionary with this work, morphing the nature of the symphony and presenting a new form of music: deeply individual and resonant with the psyche. The 5th presents a profound narrative, one that connected with audiences and ignited their emotions with raw power and intimacy. In the symphony, an individual is immediately set upon by crisis: the famous theme is known as “fate knocking at the door.” This narrative of struggling with fate concerns the deepest of human inquiry and would be an inescapable influence for future generations of composers.
However, the next work is the polar opposite of Beethoven’s 5th in every way possible. If the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th presents no mercy and ends in resound defeat, Schubert’s 5th presents a moment of no worries or tragedy, a celebration of the enjoyment of life. It is a light and sunny work, dubbed the most “Mozartean” of Schubert’s symphonies. It gambols and skips, and its songlike nature is indicative of Schubert’s prolific skill with melodies. He had so many he wouldn’t know what to do with them. They seemed to ooze out of his being. Who wouldn’t write such a carefree and singing lyrical piece of music?
In contrast, Mahler put special gravitas into his 5th, as he had been living through a period of great change at the time of its composition. Mahler had achieved mainstream success; he had his dream job as a conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and dream home in a grand villa. He was only missing the love of a woman, and that came to be resolved by the Adagietto, the 4th movement of his symphony. It is a work that is ethereal, heavenly in its floating lines and warm doting melodies. It was written as a love song to Alma Schindler, a woman whom Mahler had fallen for deeply. She only had to listen to it once to understand without any words, and accept. The 5th presents Mahler at the height of his being, at the precipices of both happiness and despair; the Adagietto in particular reflects his envelopment in the blissful, calm rapture of his adoration. It is a blessed respite amidst the chaos and power of the rest of the symphony, reflected in the fact that the Adagietto was accepted by audiences as a separate work much earlier than the rest of symphony, which people felt was too vast to be widely understood. Mahler himself lamented and expressed the wish to conduct it 50 years after his death. This disconnect between the composer and the audience could be a lethal situation, one most painful to the artist and not unique to Mahler.
As a popular composer under the communist rule of Joseph Stalin, Shostakovich faced much graver consequences than the ignorance of his audience if his works were not understood. In the Soviet Union, composers were not celebrated as artists, but public servants tasked with inspiring the people and uplifting their spirits. Deviance from this task would result in far worse than a couple of negative reviews from snooty critics. Shostakovich, as an innovator of dissonance and composer of eccentric complexity, was especially pressured in this age of repression and purges. His patron was shot and executed, and friends and relatives similarly were met with the firing squad or simply disappeared. Shostakovich had recently disappointed Soviet officials with his most recent work, and was met with threats that his style was beyond understanding with its quirks; what they wanted instead was simplicity. Yet for Shostakovich to compromise his freedom of expression in his music would mean his death as an artist. He would have to write to fool the authorities while reaching his audiences with his true intentions; what resulted in terrific, artful irony was his 5th symphony. Its finale is particularly ambiguous with its robust proud marches, melancholic and despairing asides and ringing, booming finish. Does the work end in joyous, loud victory, or is it a mere hollow and mocking reflection of one?
There is a point where we must draw the line between artist and art, but it is my belief that in music the two are most strongly bonded. These stories aren’t told as colorful back stories meant to entertain, but they are meant as a context to understand. Classical music can be frightening and mysterious in its abstract nature, its lack of concrete subject or action. But by learning about the lives, intentions and context of composers who wrote these works we can understand their vision. And for a period of time we can feel the alignment of the past and present, completely united with the players, the audience and with those long dead and gone but immortalized in their creations. It is a curious but profound synthesis of the visceral and intellectual.