September 22, 2008

Da-DA-DA-Dum! Beethoven Sales Soar

By Michael Savage

When Beethoven stood up to conduct the first performance of his Fifth Symphony in 1808, he did little to encourage its popularity. While an under-rehearsed orchestra struggled to play the music, the audience, sat in a freezing concert hall, was too cold to care.

But 200 years on, the work is enjoying a revival after an unlikely pair of celebrity conductors directed Ludwig van Beethoven's masterpiece during the BBC's reality television series, Maestro.

Sales of Symphony No 5 in C minor have almost quadrupled since its performance in the final of the series earlier this month. The high street music chain HMV said demand for recordings of the symphony increased by 295 per cent after the two finalists were called on to conduct its opening movement. The public eventually voted the comedian Sue Perkins the winner over the musician and actor Goldie, giving her the chance to conduct an orchestra at the proms in front of 30,000 people.

The sudden rush to buy Beethoven's Fifth has surprised many in the classical music world, as the symphony was already one of the most recognisable pieces in all of Beethoven's work.

Its distinctive opening bars have become one of the most familiar classical motifs, used in numerous films and television shows, while the piece has been described as one of the most important ever written.

The Fifth's spine-tingling opening four notes - three short Gs followed by a longer E flat - a rhythm that represents "V" in Morse Code, were also used to symbolise victory for the Allies, and the piece featured as the opening music to the BBC's radio news bulletins during the Second World War.

According to the music critic Michael Church, Maestro may now have brought the piece to the attention of a new generation. "It is true that people of a certain age may be familiar with the piece, but the programme seems to have introduced the symphony to younger people," he said. "The Fifth is a wonderful work, made the greater for all the associations it has gained over the years."

Classical music advocates have praised the BBC for the show, which portrayed the difficulties of the little-understood art of conducting. There have already been calls for a second series.

Tony Shaw, HMV's classical manager, said: "These days, people often tend to discover classical music through film soundtracks or television ads, so it's refreshing that an intelligent programme such as Maestro should have had such a similarly positive effect."

Mr Church added: "The popularity of the show has been a pleasant surprise and has demonstrated how thoroughly difficult it is to conduct by weeding out the ones who cannot do it from the ones who can. Good conductors really do have a special quality, though it is very hard to pin down exactly what that quality is. They are really clever people."

The show was the latest successful attempt by the BBC to apply the reality television formula to the relatively highbrow field of classical music.

It followed The Choir -Boys Don't Sing, in which Gareth Malone, a singing teacher, persuaded pupils at The Lancaster School, a boys' comprehensive in Leicester, not only to form a choir but to reach a high enough standard to sing at the Albert Hall. The BBC also ran a competition to find the UK's best choir in Last Choir Standing, eventually won by the 18-member Only Men Aloud! group from Cardiff.

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