With a biting chill in the night air, winter served notice that its arrival was not far off, and the mild, sunny days of autumn must give way to north winds. Inside Detroit’s venerable Orchestra Hall, with its elegant decorations on ceiling and walls, warmth welled up from the music on the stage and glowed in the muted light.
As the program began, the orchestra’s rendition of an unfamiliar mood piece pleasantly surprised me. I then listened, somewhat absent-mindedly, to a discordant modern arrangement, anticipating that the evening’s musical sparks would be struck following the intermission.
The musicians in their black-and-white formal attire took their places again. Emerging from the wings, the conductor strode briskly to the podium to generous applause. At his gesture, the orchestra came to life, like toy soldiers suddenly animated in a Christmas fantasy. The string section played the most recognizable opening bars in music, the staccato notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The audience leaned forward in their seats, alerted to the sound of Fate knocking.
As Danton was to the French Revolution—“Audacity, always!”—so Beethoven was to music. The ominous tones of Fate are answered by the clarion call of Heroism in the final movement, sung in shining tones by the brass instruments. In a liberation of emotion, the Hero triumphs in aggressive chords driving to the finale. The symphony is symbolic of Beethoven himself battling to create a musical revolution, freeing the present from the past, a bourgeois storm deposing aristocratic elegance.
Strolling out again into the crisp night, I found myself reflecting that the heroic spirit of Beethoven’s Fifth lies dormant in our time. It is perhaps sleeping in a vault with old clips of John F. Kennedy speaking, his finger jabbing the air, or grainy film of Jackie Robinson dancing on the base paths, as he broke major league baseball’s color bar. Today, we are in desperate need of men and women to take up their torch, to show audacity in the face of today’s pervasive cynicism and nihilism. Fate is knocking, but we await Heroes to answer the call.