Pleading The Fifth

As a musician I’m often asked what my favorite band or favorite song is. As far as rock and roll or whatever we’re calling it these days,narrowing it down to any one song is nearly impossible, and it depends on when you ask me, how my mood is, and

    Beethoven Fifth Symphony 2nd movement conducted
    by Mikhail Pletnev/ Russian National Orchestra 2009 what particular internet arguments I am involved in at the time.

For bands, it still varies as the wind blows, but I can usually keep it to a gaggle of regular suspects, The Beatles, Camper Van Beethoven/ Cracker, Robyn Hitchcock, Pixies/ Frank Black, Phish, They Might Be Giants, Stephen Malkmus/ Pavement…

But in the grander scale of things there is one composer and one piece of music that, to me, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Ludwig van Beethoven and the Fifth Symphony, specifically the second movement.

I’ve long respected and admired the work of Beethoven, but sometime in the early 90’s this particular piece was cemented in my conscience. It has since held its unwavering place at the top of my list, with as many gold stars as I can give it.

It was late one night or early morning when I came home after a long, crazy party. I wasn’t quite ready for sleep, but my body was exhausted. I wanted something mellow to listen to and lull my thoughts away. Something without lyrics I would have to pay attention to.

I found my CD of Beethoven’s Fifth by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first movement slipped by in all its majesty, and soon I was immersed in the brilliance of the second section.

I ended up not sleeping, I hit repeat on the CD player a few times and listened to it over and over. I found it speaking to me, without words it was transmitting some information directly into my soul. It left me laughing. Not a snicker or a little giggle, a riotous uncontrollable laughter, I am surprised I didn’t wake any neighbors.

There is good reason the Fifth Symphony is still one of the most well-known compositions in history. And everyone is familiar with the first movement, especially the opening, even if they don’t know what it is.


But here, in the second movement, something is being conveyed, a story is being told. I get glimpses of it still when I listen late at night in that state between waking and dream. Beethoven is telling us the history of Humanity, the history of the Universe, and the individual history of the single, isolated, inconsequential human life, all standing one next to the other, all a metaphor for the rest.

There is something transcendent, majestic, exuberant, existential and a terrible, terrible sadness and loneliness that, somehow, we all seem to share.

I know it’s one mans opinion but I will easily call this the most beautiful piece of music ever written, possibly the greatest accomplishment of artistic expression of all human history.

As an artist and a musician I can admire it, revere it, but I can’t really understand how it was written. I can’t ever see my mind being so inspired to turn out something so brilliant. But I can, and do, thoroughly enjoy it. And this I plan to do as long as I have a brain cell left in my head, and ears which still hear.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

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