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Postcards from the Ledge: On Beethoven and Tottenham

What Beethoven's Fifth Symphony can teach us about being Spurs fans

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics
Laurence Griffiths

It's in moments like these, after a bad loss, where morale is at its lowest and everything seems as bleak as Wigan's annual title hopes, where it can be helpful to step back from the precipice and get some perspective. Some of you know that I am a classically-trained musician with a keen interest in musicology. My liberal arts background also informs my tendency to think about ways in which the disparate can be connected, in this case classical music and sports. Let's face it, more professional footballers probably listen to Young Jeezy than a symphony (as do most of the readers here, I'll wager), but there is something to be learned about what was considered the "pop music" of the 19th century.

Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Fifth Symphony between 1804 and 1808 during what scholars now call his Second Compositional period, a time when the knowledge of his impending deafness was not only too late to ignore, but also to late to avoid. Just two years prior to beginning his Fifth Symphony, the great composer had written what is now known to musicologists as the "Heiligenstadt testament," a painful and moving letter to his brothers that was intended to be read after his death. In this treatise, Beethoven openly admitted to contemplating suicide, and expressed the profound anguish he experienced when confronting his impending deafness:

"Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country... what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing... Such incident drove me almost to despair, a little more of that and I would have ended my life... Oh Providence -- grant me at last but one day of pure joy -- it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart."

Beethoven 3

Beethoven in 1804. Painting by W.J. Mähler [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Victorian-era Europeans had a duplicitous relationship with the idea of fate and predestination. To the Victorians, fatalism was a central philosophical tenant that as an individual, one is powerless over the overall direction of his life apart from minor individual decisions. Fatalists could be driven by metaphysical fate ("the universe conspires against me") or theology (i.e. Calvinism's "pre-determinism" or even the Deists' "clockmaker God"). Fatalism as a philosophy, however, underwent a serious challenge with the dawn of Romanticism and the rise of the intensely emotive art, philosophy and music that accompanied it.

Thus, one should experience Beethoven's Fifth Symphony through the lens of the composer's experience at the time. For Beethoven, the art of composition was inextricably tied to his own personal ethos. While he could (and did, on occasion) compose "for hire" - his unexceptional "Wellington's Victory Overture" is one such example - he cared deeply about his own compositions and in his most personal compositions such as his symphonies, the overall tone tends to mirror the state of his personal life. When you combine Beethoven's tragic hearing loss with the burgeoning sturm und drang of early Romantic music, it's no wonder then that the Fifth Symphony is one of the most intensely emotional works in Beethoven's opus.

Everyone knows the opening of the Fifth Symphony. Even school children can hum the opening four-note theme in C minor, the motif that has been referred to as "fate knocking on the door": dum-dum-dum-DUMMMMMMM. It's a haunting little bit of music. And mirroring Beethoven during this time, despair echoes throughout the Fifth Symphony. This symphony has come to symbolize Beethoven's struggle with the inevitable, his impending deafness.


image via Wikimedia Commons

[Musical Example -- Beethoven Symphony No. 5, 1st movement, "Allegro con brio." Performed by the Gothenburg Symphony, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor]

The music is powerful, dark, bombastic. The fate motif appears over and over in various permutations throughout the symphony, especially in the transitional third movement. This is Beethoven crying out from the depths, "grappling with fate," desperately searching for relief. Any port in a storm. It's no wonder that this theme appears even today in popular culture as a portent of doom - it's pervasive, intrusive, and instantly recognizable.

[Musical Example - Beethoven Symphony No. 5, 3rd movement "Scherzo. Allegro." Performed by the Detroit Symphony, Louis Langree, conductor]

But this is not the end of the story. Just as Beethoven, in his Heiligenstadt testament, eventually emerges from the dark and declares his willingness to live, so too does the Fifth Symphony. The final, fourth movement makes a shocking transition from C minor to glorious, imperious C major tonality after a seamless transition from the third movement. The opening theme uses the full complement of the orchestra with breathtaking effect, and the conclusion is both viscerally and emotionally satisfying. I reject fatalism, Beethoven seems to be saying. I will not succumb, I will control my own destiny. Even when the "fate motif" permutation from the third movement interrupts the party midway through the movement, it is quickly overshadowed by a return to the hopefulness of C major tonality. Viewed in this context, the Fifth Symphony is a deeply personal account of one man's struggle with events beyond his control – and his eventual acceptance, if not victory. Fate knocked, and Beethoven refused to answer the door.

[Musical Example - Beethoven Symphony No. 5, 4th movement "Allegro." Performed by the Russian National Symphony, Mikhai Pletnev, conductor]

As Tottenham fans, we know all too well the crushing pain of disappointment and helplessness when we encounter what appears to be the inevitable. We have seen it so often. Most recently, last season we felt the impending doom of a late-season collapse that resulted in us finishing fourth, only to be pipped from Champions League play by Chelsea. We recall only too well the "dodgy lasagna incident." We talk openly about Spurs' history of capitualation, about never getting over the hump, about "Spursing it up" at key moments. This is Tottenham, we say, in semi-seriousness. This is what we are. This is our fate.

It's an easy trap to fall into. We are, after all, by definition only observers. Regardless of the societal structures we impose upon the game by our presence and actions -- at the stadium, with our compatriots, singing our songs, arguing with our mates, yelling at the television. The silly rituals, the good luck charms, the exhortations to the Almighty -- in the end we can really do naught but sit back and watch as things unfold. Can we truly change the fate of our club? Are we not simply passive viewers with no control over the fate of our chosen tribe? Would it not be better (in the Romantic sense of the word) to abandon these futile pursuits towards something that routinely makes (and keeps) us happy? If ever there was a remaining secular nod of the head to predestination or the existence of an uncaring, Deistic god, it's in the realm of sports and sports fandom.

So back to Tottenham Hotspur. Two league losses in a row. Three on the trot. A bad loss to middling Fulham and our former (wrongfully terminated?) gaffer on the heels of an acceding shellacking by Inter Milan. Aimless play, shambolic offense, Champions League cushion slipping away. And it could yet get worse: fail to finish in the top four and, the pundits say, we'll lose everything: the prestige of European competition, the much-needed money that goes with it, our best players, perhaps our new stadium. It is a dark place that we're entering, my friends, and we as fans can seemingly do nothing about it but look inwards. Fate knocks. Do we answer?

But remember this: Beethoven was not a fatalist. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Fifth Symphony, it is Romantic, and not Deist. We control our own destiny. Adversity can be overcome. But more than that, Beethoven showed through his Fifth Symphony the enduring power of hope, even in the most dire of circumstances. Beethoven showed us the way. For what is hope except that which we cling to when all else falls away?

Sixteen years after the first performance of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven stood in front of the Kärtnertortheater in Vienna to conduct the premiere of his ninth and final symphony. By then, he was profoundly deaf; he never heard a single note of what was probably his greatest work. Inspired by the "Ode to Joy" poem by Friedrich Schiller, it is one of the most sublimely beautiful pieces of music in the history of western music. This was the end result of his triumph over despair and the pitfalls of fatalism. It is the ultimate expression of musical joy. It has inspired millions. It continues to inspire today.

This is the most positive end result of grappling with fate, as we supporters must do for the remainder of the Premier League season. But we must have hope. We must believe that our fate is not predetermined. And so at the end of this season, come what may, I ask you to sit down some time, my friends, and listen to the Fifth Symphony. The whole of it. Grapple with the dark, and see if you are not then inspired to re-enter the light.