The Silent Beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

April 13, 2021
Photo by Thomas Faull/Getty Images

Before the four sounds played fortissimo violently
comes a rest, that lasts just an eighth of a beat,
to hear which is quite an impossible feat.

You might see it though, looking into the score,
but if you don’t do this you’ll think that the four
famous sounds the world knows with their da da da DUM
are its opening notes.

No! the first note is dumb,
a silence that cannot be heard, like the one
performed by God all the time, followed by none
of the sounds we can’t hear from Him, unlike those Beet-
hoven helps us to hear, as if telling us fate
is what happens when we aren’t aware it is coming,
since it’s silent, before it starts da da da dumming.

This motif thus tells us it’s wrong to believe
that what after silence we hear can relieve
that silence we’ve heard, as we do every time
we try in this world to find reason or rhyme.

Gershon Hepner 4/12/21

Eric Banks reviews Matthew Guerrieri’s The First Four Notes, in the 12/22/14 WSJ (“An Opening That Echoes Endlessly”):
………. One key to the Fifth’s own cultural malleability—or ambiguity—is found in those first four measures, a masterstroke of misdirection. We tend to remember the four notes as severe and brooding, with a ponderousness that sits at extreme odds with the allegro con brio marking. That is only one of several conundrums Beethoven presents to the listener off the bat. In fact, we should speak of five notes, since the symphony begins on an eighth rest, with the first note occurring strangely enough on the downbeat, instituting a hair-thin, quick moment of silence to begin the piece.

Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976.  Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

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