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. Each of the first three notes does its part to contribute to the rhythmic uncertainty, written not as triplets but as awkwardly equal quarter notes. As Hoffmann was the first to point out, hearing the first four notes, the three short Gs and held E-flat, we can’t really discern whether we are listening to a work in E-flat major or C minor; it’s not until the third and fourth meters that the tonic is delineated. And then, a mere two bars into the symphony, there is the lingering and sudden fermata—common in Haydn, but not in a composition that puts so much stress on its fleetness.
Conductors across the last two centuries—and subsequently, of course, recordings of the Fifth—have been more faithful to the brio than to the allegro. (Pierre Boulez even conducted a recording of the Fifth at a poky 74 beats per minute, a glacial tempo compared with the 108 half-notes per minute that Beethoven inscribed in his revisions to the score.) This tendency has been only marginally checked in the last few decades, in the wake of the early-music movement and its insistence on historically informed performances. As conductor Roger Norrington has written, the deliberate pacing and no-holds-barred performances have had the effect of making Beethoven sound more like early Wagner than late Haydn. Yet as the symphony moved further away from the moment of its composition, and away from its revolutionary associations, the relative torpor of Romantic performances, then those of the twentieth century, sounded more like “Beethoven” than what Beethoven actually wrote. They helped make the first four notes a kind of shorthand for any number of things—the infinite, the struggle of the tragic artist, the birth of genius—that was easy to export, that could find meaning in Victorian England and Transcendentalist New England, and that could be quoted in the work of disparate composers, from Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata (circa 1916) to Schönberg’s wartime Ode to Napoleon (1942). Even Cage himself sampled it in his 1965 recording of Variations IV, pinning archival news reports about Nazi Germany’s defeat to its sudden appearance.