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Beethoven’s Fifth, played by seven members of the Australian Haydn Ensemble, (AHE)  is a sweeping, joyous sound. The June 30 performance at the City Recital Hall received a standing ovation. Played by six stirngs and one flute, the ensemble presented a complete and bounteous sound that appealed to this reviewer more than the full orchestral version. The enthusiastic chatter and positive vibe in the foyer after the performance confirmed this view.

The first half of the performance was Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid and Ferdinand Ries’ Symphony No 3. Both were precise and enjoyable entrees to what most in the audience had come to hear: The Fifth.

What is it about the key of C minor? What is it about the powerful and turbulent opening – da da da daaaa? Why was The Fifth played by Chinese youth in secret in the 1970s? Why were the opening bars tapped out in London bomb shelters during the Blitz?

First, the Blitz. “V” is generally a sign for ‘victory’. Dot-dot-dot-dash is the “V” in Morse code. That four-note motif was played before every BBC wartime broadcast to Europe. People huddling in London shelters communicated through walls by banging out the “V” as defiance and as support for one another. The Fifth premiered in Vienna in 1808. The first Morse code message was sent in 1844.  If only Beethoven could know.

The connection with Beethoven and the secret gatherings of the Chinese youth resulted from the banning of western music during Mao’s reign. Beethoven in China by Jindong Cai and Sheila Melvin tell the fascinating tale in detail. Briefly, Chinese students secretly played Beethoven, the Beatles and other banned music. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who controlled the cultural ministries, banned almost all western music. However, heir-apparent Zhou En Lai continued to listen to Beethoven in private.  The Fifth was his favourite, so says Jindong Cai.  In 1977, Beethoven’s Fifth was played on Chinese radio as a signal to the people that the Cultural Revolution was finally over.  Again, if only Beethoven could know.

The AHE artists are Skye McIntosh, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Nicole Divall, Daniel Yeadon, Pippa Macmillan and Jesica Lee, the flautist. This concert has toured around NSW and ended in Sydney on June 30.


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