As Georges Danton was to the French Revolution—“Audacity, audacity, and always audacity!”—so Ludwig van Beethoven was to music in their time.
Beethoven battled to create a musical revolution, to free the present from the past, a revolutionary tempest deposing aristocratic elegance. On an autumn evening, I looked forward to Sturm und Drang in musical form, courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
With a biting chill in the night air, winter served notice that its arrival was not far off, and the mild, sunny days of fall must give way. Inside Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, with its elegant decorations and muted light, warmth would well up from the music on stage .
The evening’s musical program began with a pleasant surprise, a mood piece unfamiliar to me. A discordant modern arrangement followed, with the evening’s anticipated musical sparks to be struck after the intermission.
After the brief respite, the musicians, in their black-and-white formal wear, returned to their places. The conductor strode briskly to the podium to generous applause. When he raised his baton, 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. Fate knocking. Drawn in by the magnetism, the audience leaned forward in their seats.
The ominous tones of Fate were–after some lighter fare– 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 triumphed in aggressive chords driving to the finale. The audience, released from the music’s grip, responded with its own storm of applause.
The symphony is symbolic of Beethoven himself, or of the Revolutions of his time, if you prefer.
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 captured on grainy film of Jackie Robinson dancing on the base paths, and facing down the racists as he broke major league baseball’s color bar.
Today, we are in desperate need of men and women to take up the baton, to show audacity in the face of today’s pervasive cynicism and nihilism. Fate is knocking, yet we await Heroes to answer the call.