Consider the warhorses: those pieces of music that have seemingly permanently wedged their way into the standard kit of Western cultural literacy, repeated and reprogrammed as if by reflex. And consider probably the most well-known of warhorses, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
I have spent a good part of the last several years working on a book about Beethoven’s Fifth. It is a little strange to spend so much time in the company of a 200-year-old piece of music. For one thing, our relationship to music has profoundly changed since the symphony’s premiere. Music, today, is a commodity: I can listen to Beethoven’s Fifth whenever I want. In fact, I can’t even remember the first time I heard Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s always been there. Its familiarity is almost oppressive, so much so that ignorance of it seems almost willfully eccentric. (Such, perhaps, was the case of André Breton. In 1930, having finished his film “L’Âge d’or” — or “The Golden Age” — Luis Buñuel arranged a private screening for a group of his fellow Surrealists. Hearing Beethoven’s Fifth on the soundtrack, Breton, the founder of Surrealism, leaned over and whispered to a friend, “Who wrote that? It’s very beautiful.”)
But, then again, its familiarity — its warhorse status — is the main reason we care about it, the main reason there’s a book’s worth of stories to tell about its subsequent cultural cachet. We listen to it because it’s famous, and it’s famous because we keep listening to it.
The music world has come to devote so much of its attention and energy to the care and upkeep of such warhorses. (In decades past, I might have qualified that as the “classical music world,” but the continuing ex officio place at the table for the Beatles and the Stones hints at the way rock and pop are also increasingly in thrall to its history.) There’s a longstanding charge against classical-music institutions in particular of being little more than dusty museums of outdated repertoire. There’s truth in that, but, its having been hurled for so long, one starts to wonder if the accusation is missing the point. What if classical-music institutions, and the warhorses they tend, are symptoms, not causes?
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that right around the time Beethoven’s symphonies were attaining (and, in many ways, inventing) warhorse status, there arose another ubiquitous artifact: the time clock. In the early 1850s, Johannes Bürk, then in charge of the fire-watch for the Black Forest town of Schwenningen, developed the portable watchclock. (He assigned the American patent to his brother, Jacob Buerk, who had emigrated to Boston.) Inserting keys mounted at fixed stations into the clock, watchmen — and their bosses — could demonstrate that they had been in a certain place at a certain time. The technology was soon adopted throughout the industrialized world, and adapted for workers in factories and other regimented businesses. It was the clockwork by which the division of labor could be structured and managed. Johannes Bürk called it “the control of control.”
Maybe what the warhorse does, at its best, is refract some of that control back onto the individual, at least in a cultural sense. Commodified or not, culture remains, in all its guises — high and low, serious and trivial — the main way human beings make sense of their place in the world. But today’s culture is, as a whole, forbiddingly unwieldy. The landscape is saturated with information, the age of mechanical reproduction that Walter Benjamin so famously worried over is now inherent. One could think of warhorses as the monopolizing surplus of that reproduction, reprints squeezing out the space for new releases. But one could also think of them as watchclock checkpoints — fixed stations in the cultural warehouse, keys that we need to periodically turn in order to keep our bearings among an ever-expanding floor plan.
One of the books I read in my Beethoven research was the novel “Jean-Christophe,” by the French writer Romain Rolland. Published between 1903 and 1912, the novel was Rolland’s attempt to imagine if Beethoven, fictionalized as the composer Jean-Christophe Krafft, were reborn into the modern world. Enormously successful in its day, “Jean-Christophe” is rarely read now; even Rolland’s modern world has become as foreign to us as Beethoven’s. But Beethoven’s symphonies, like so many warhorses, seem to sail above time and era. We don’t hear Beethoven’s Fifth in anywhere near the same way its original listeners did. And that doesn’t seem to matter. The date on a warhorse is a red herring: It’s the reentry of those sounds into the world now, for a listener now, that cements its status, performance by performance.
But is there anything left to hear in the Fifth? I’m not sure. Ortiz Walton, a bassist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chastised anyone who would go and hear Beethoven’s Fifth “for the hundredth time,” who would keep “listening to it, claiming falsely that he hears something new every time.” Still, we keep trying, either inspired or conned by all those previous generations, hoping that our own perception might be the spark that once again generates life out of the primordial soup of the Fifth and its celebrity.
And we might as well keep trying. For better or for worse, the Fifth is one of those warhorses that isn’t going away anytime soon. The biography of the Fifth, of any warhorse, after all, is not so much a story of a great achievement that echoes down through the ages, but of a category of experience, one reiterated and renewed by every single person who partakes of it. It too is a story of persistence.
gmail.com. His book, “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” was published Nov. 13 by Alfred A. Knopf.