His master work: Beethoven's Fifth

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is widely regarded as the greatest classical composition of all time. The London Philharmonia will perform it in Abu Dhabi.

What makes a masterpiece? One answer is: mastery. But that raises questions of its own. What is it? Where does it come from? And is it enough? One hears of masterpieces being discovered, like the Rufino Tamayo painting that turned up in a Manhattan skip a couple of years ago. Was it simply that a work of exceptional artistry had been unearthed, or was there more - some edifice of historical and critical understanding that happened to have a slot for that particular canvas? We already knew about Tamayo; his reputation preceded the discovery (but the woman who found it didn't - she just thought the painting "had a strange power"). Could one find a masterpiece by someone not previously acknowledged as a master? What about works in lowlier fields? Could there be a masterpiece of advertising, or crochet? Would it matter who had made it?

Perhaps it is impertinent to raise questions in connection with, by consensus, one of the greatest pieces of art in history. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which the London Philharmonia will play in Abu Dhabi this week, is not a borderline case. It enjoys an eminence in western culture that is rivalled by only a handful of works, names too familiar to recite here. It exhibits immense accomplishment, originality and power. You don't have to know much about music to perceive its greatness: the Fifth imposes on the listener, booming out of silence with the most famous opening bar in music, that Morse-code message from fate, before plunging into a passionate tumult that doesn't resolve until its triumphant final chords. It's seamless, single-minded. Cultural materialism is the doctrine that artworks are shaped and invested with meaning by the politics of their time. The Fifth feels like a refutation of that: transcendent, ideal, a work of naked and universal emotion produced by a bearish semi-recluse. Yet, for all that, it seems ripped from eternity, both the symphony and its fame have a history.

Its first performance didn't go terribly well. In Vienna in the December of 1808, Beethoven directed a four-hour concert of premières of his own music. The venue, the Theater an der Wien, was freezing cold. The orchestra was under-rehearsed and it was probably a mistake to save the Fifth for the show's second half. Beethoven had been working on the piece for several years, refining his ideas and editing ruthlessly. At the same time he turned out a series of lesser compositions, distractions which included his fourth and sixth symphonies, the Appassionata piano concerto and the Mass in C. He was, as is well known, suffering from increasing deafness, brought on by lead poisoning or syphilis or perhaps (as the composer himself appeared to believe) a stomach complaint that afflicted him with diarrhoea on the days when his hearing improved. Composing was a battle; performing an indignity. Legend has it that when he played the piano, he attached a rod to his soundboard which he would bite in order to sense its vibrations. The Fifth was his most cherished project, the one he lavished more attention on than any work before - and it fell flat. Genius or not, he is a difficult man to envy.

But why did the piece get a second chance? Because of the man he was. Beethoven was widely regarded as the heir to the most celebrated composer of the time, Mozart. The comparison didn't come about by luck. His father, a music teacher, made him play his first public concert at the age of seven but distributed posters claiming that he was six so that he might seem as much a prodigy as Mozart had been. When he was 17 Beethoven went to Vienna to study under Mozart, though family illness seems to have called him back to Bonn before the two great composers could meet. Instead he was tutored by Haydn, Mozart's friend, and Salieri, Mozart's occasional rival. Beethoven pored over Mozart's works and penned fluent imitations. He went on a grand tour of Europe, following the itinerary set by Mozart seven years before and accompanied by Prince Lichnowsky of Prussia, who had been Mozart's travelling partner. Short of playing a few more scatological pranks, it's difficult to say what else Beethoven could have done to establish the line of artistic paternity. He was the next best thing, and the best thing was dead. He was the kind of artist who got second chances.

Besides, the tide of history was going his way. By the time of the Fifth's premiere, Beethoven was the composer in residence at the Theater an der Wien and embarked on what has come to be known as his "heroic" middle period. Classical smoothness was giving way to wild grandeur. It fitted the times: after the French Revolution, the pragmatic statecraft of the 18th century was losing ground to militant idealism and the mess that came in its wake. Music, like everything else, would have to leave the tranquillity of the court and adapt itself to the barricades. Beethoven just noticed it first.

Thus he began this revolutionary part of his career with his third symphony, the Eroica ("heroic"), composed to honour Napoleon Bonaparte and angrily withdrawn when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. ("So he is no more than a common mortal!" the composer exclaimed on hearing the news, his assistant Ferdinand Ries reported. "Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!") It's interesting that Beethoven should have made this connection between mortal fallibility and tyranny: few composers did as much to position the paying audience as a rabble. With Eroica, music entered the 19th century. It was long and difficult. It sounded wrong even to Ries. Listeners were divided; it was, in a new way, something you had to understand. Lots of people didn't. Had Mozart's heir taken a wrong turn on the road to greatness? If so, he wasn't about to turn back. The doubters would be dragged along, or else left behind.

Hence the Fifth, in which the violence and grandeur of the Eroica are redoubled. Its first performance may not have done much for its reputation, but its second, 18 months later, won it an important friend. The concert was attended by the jurist, fantasy author and critic ETA Hoffmann, who was covering the show for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. The review he wrote was, not to put too fine a point on it, bizarre. Lester Bangs never wrote anything as psychedelic, or as hectoring.

"Beethoven's instrumental music opens up to us the realms of the monstrous and immeasurable," Hoffmann wrote. "Burning rays of light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, closing in on us in ever narrower confines until they destroy us, but not the pain of endless longing ..." Only by virtue of that pain, he continued, "do we live on and become captivated beholders of the spirits".

These days Hoffmann is best known for The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which inspired Tchaikovsky's ballet. Yet he was also a composer himself, and a student of the greatest German philosopher of the age, Immanuel Kant. That last item is important, and bears on what Hoffmann was driving at in the lines quoted above. You might want to steel yourself here, because I'm about to quote from Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgement, in which the mandarin of Konigsberg tries to lay bare the essence of aesthetic experience.

The aesthetic idea, Kant wrote, is "that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever (ie concept) being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never set quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible". A large part of Kant's own lasting cult derives from the fact that even his matter-of-fact pronouncements are rarely fully intelligible, but the drift here is simple enough. Aesthetic experiences compel us to reflect on them even as they elude our efforts to sum them up in words. Kant, as it happens, didn't hold music in particularly high regard; he considered it one of the merely "agreeable" arts since it didn't supply any material for conceptual reflection - it didn't induce the right kind of thought. But Hoffmann, as both a Kantian and a composer, wanted to put it on a more exalted plane. With the Fifth, he saw his chance.

That explains the imagery of abstract immensity in the review he wrote for Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. In Beethoven's fifth symphony music wasn't just a decorous working out of the rules of classical form: it was high, if inscrutable, drama, like the epic poetry Kant held up as the sublimest art. The very fact that some people didn't like it, that it was strenuous and turbulent and, in a sense, painful, just made it better. It divided the world into two great classes: those who did and those who didn't get Beethoven.

Writing in 1813, Hoffmann took an even more divisive stand. "How does the matter stand if it is your feeble observation alone that the deep continuity of Beethoven's every composition eludes? If it is your fault that you do not understand the master's language as the initiated understand it, that the portals of the innermost sanctuary remain closed to you?" How indeed? In Hoffmann's account, Beethoven's music had ascended through the sublime to become a sort of mystical secret. If you couldn't see it, it wasn't meant for you - and so much the worse for you.

Beethoven, unsurprisingly, thought highly of Hoffmann's reviews, though perhaps he grew uncomfortable with such explicit image management. A decade later he published a canon in the journal Caecilia with the text: "Hoffmann! Hoffmann! Don't be a courtier, not a courtier!", a pun on the critic's name (Hofmann with one "f" means courtier) that banteringly accused him of sucking up. There is something rather queasy about this; the sublime seems a long way off. Still, in this roundabout acknowledgement of political back-scratching we might be said, echoing Hoffman, to behold the spirit of something. Even the greatest masterpieces are made by human hands, and not only those of their authors. Like the Tamayo painting but in vastly greater degree, the Fifth has "strange power". Still, as the Tamayo proves, that isn't always enough to stay out of the dustbin. That's why, when the London Philharmonia produces that first surge of strings this week, I'll be thinking about Beethoven's most daring critic. But not for long: the music takes over soon enough.

The London Philharmonia, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, will perform Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Mozart's Ninth Piano Concerto at the Emirates Palace tonight. See www.abudhabiclassics.com for tickets.