Let’s have some fun with Beethoven! Specifically the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, easily the most famous piece of classical music in the world. The indelible Duh Duh Duh DAH motif that opens and shapes the movement may or may not be “Fate Knocking on the Door” (according to Wikipedia attribution of that metaphor to the Maestro himself is dubious), but it is surely one of the most widely recognized musical themes in existence, likely only rivaled by that other super famous Beethoven tune, the Ode to Joy.
Before we have our fun, and take a gander at how contemporary artists have joyfully appropriated this classic, let’s play Ludwig some respect and give the original a look and listen:
Premiered in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth was soon recognized as a masterpiece and has been one of the most widely played orchestral pieces ever since. But after about 150 years of exalted safety, pop music attacked and appropriations ensued with the Rock Era. Chuck Berry famously sang “Roll Over Beethoven” (not Roll Over Mozart or Roll Over Tchaikovsky) and when ELO covered that song they included a 30 second intro quoting the famous beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth. The Japanese rock band Takeshi Terauchi & the Bunnys recorded a “surf’s up” style electric guitar instrumental of the Fifth in 1967. If Beethoven could hear it, he probably would be rolling over repeatedly in his grave.
The most famous and successful pop instrumental adaptation would be Walter Murphy’s Disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven”, which hit #1 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1976. Murphy lays a sizable sample of the first movement over a very groovy beat, boldly adding some harmonic modifications into the mix among other instrumental flourishes. The middle section abandons Beethoven for some generic disco riffing before capping things off with a repeat of the first section and a coda lifted directly from the symphony yet given another 1970’s harmonic tweak. “A Fifth of Beethoven” is cheekily sophisticated disco. The fly beat would have probably accelerated Ludwig’s decomposition process, but for us mere mortals it was hard to resist the dance floor when the DJ laid this vinyl down back in the day:
“A Fifth of Beethoven” would become the foundation on which our next three examples erect their recordings. In 1999 the UK rap artist A+ released “Enjoy Yourself”, laying his rhymes over an extensive sampling of Walter Murphy’s tracks. A female vocalist rather wobbly sings the title phrase over the discofied version of Beethoven’s music. That may be the first time an original melody is laid over those Beethoven themes. However, much more ambitiously and successfully to my taste, in 2002 Robin Thicke sings originally composed full fledged melodic verses and choruses over Walter Murphy’s arrangements in his sex drenched single “When I Get You Alone”. Thicke’s original melodies and lyrics take center stage, but Beethoven can still be clearly heard underneath Walter Murphy’s polyester sheen.
And of course the TV Troubadours of Pop on GLEE were going to put their stamp on Thicke’s hit. Darren Chris and the Warblers attack “When I Get You Alone” a cappella, rendering Ludwig’s and Walter’s and Robin’s contributions in enthusiastic Vum Vum Vum’s, falsetto whoops and mouth beat boxing. The multiple layers of recording studio sampling that culminated with Robin Thicke are now once again a purely acoustic performance by an orchestra of male voices.
I get a kick out of following the journey from Beethoven’s original to Walter Murphy’s adaptation to Robin Thicke’s appropriation to Glee’s a cappella. It is that slightly irreverent musical journey that inspired this post in the first place. But I won’t leave it there. I have two bonus examples of appropriating the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with which to regale you.
First is “I’m Mean”, a song from 2010’s Fourth Grade Opera at the Brooklyn Children’s School. Like many original operas composed by fourth graders before and since, that year’s opera’s themes were friendship and bullying. And with “I’m Mean” the main bully of the opera has her big number. One of the young composers that year, Julian Lieber, insisted on using that most famous music from Beethoven’s Fifth as the inspiration and foundation for the song. I played the theme for him and he worked out the bully’s vocal lines in response. He even suggested using a variation and repetitious stretching of the second half of the main theme as the basis for the verse section of “I’m Mean”. Julian also decided that the accompaniment should include dramatic organ sounds. You can get a sample of the results from the track and score excerpts below. (I used a sax sound on the track to stand in for the singer.)
And finally, for dessert, and to fully kill off Ludwig if we haven’t done so already, Peter Schickele’s “New Horizons in Music Appreciation”, Beethoven’s Fifth brought to you as a music sports event with two music sports reporters. It needs to be heard to be believed, and to my ears is one of the funniest comedy routine recordings ever put on vinyl: