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Musical madness in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

August 30, 2016

Dah-dah-dah-dahhhh. These are the famous opening notes you’ll hear the SF Symphony play on September 14–17 and on a special Discovery Concert on September 18.

The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognizable themes in all of western classical music. More known than his Ode to Joy, more hummable than Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, more ubiquitous than Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville (Bugs Bunny notwithstanding).

Despite this famous opening, there is another passage in Beethoven’s Fifth that has reached an even wider audience and yet is dramatically less known. Found in the middle of the second movement, it is a variation on a theme called La Folia, literally meaning “folly” or “madness.”

Dating back to the 17th century, La Folia is a dance based on a 16-bar chord progression. With this harmonic framework as a starting point, over 150 composers have written variations on La Folia using every instrument imaginable, from symphonic orchestra to sitar and ukulele.

Beethoven, too, is part of this tradition. The second movement of his Fifth Symphony opens with a charming melody (which took him fourteen attempts and eight years to write).

After moving through the lilting theme and several variations evoking melancholy, mystery, joy, grandeur, and nobility, the orchestra settles into a nine bar phrase which is a fragment of the famous La Folia progression.


Listen to the "La Folia" variation in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

As the theme unfolds, the mood is transformed. Hints of Renaissance and Baroque music rise from the orchestra as the archaic harmony takes center stage.

Then, as quickly as it began, the air clears and the moment is over. A musical thought so fleeting that it easily goes unnoticed. Yet, in those few bars, Beethoven wove echoes of the past into a work that would forever change the landscape of classical music.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony perform Beethoven’s Fifth in mid-September along with a Discovery Concert in which MTT will guide an exploration of this masterwork within a rich, multi-media environment, featuring commentary, video, and a live performance. When you enjoy this incredible work, take in that driving, fateful first movement. Then, listen for shadows of the past in the second. You’ll find yourself part of a centuries-old tradition of madness, dance, and musical genius.

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