This season at the CPO, you’ll hear the fifth symphonies of famous composers. To learn more about it, we had a Q&A with our Artistic Director Heather Slater. 

1. Why “Five Famous Fifths?” What are they all about?

This season, we are celebrating the awesomeness of the Fifth Symphony by performing the Fifths of Shostakovich, Mahler, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. If you stretched out all of these composers’ symphonies in a row (that’s a total of 47 symphonies) and picked the five best matches, one from each row, you’d probably end up with a handful of Fifths. In other words, Fifth Symphonies have a lot in common; Beethoven’s was the first Famous Fifth, and it’s not far-fetched to think that every composer after him, when it came time to write a Fifth, looked back at the master’s for inspiration.

2. Why is Beethoven’s Fifth so famous?

The opening 4-note motif is the most recognizable bit of classical music ever: “da da da DUH”. Just three short notes followed by one long one, but it’s so striking that it buries itself in your head forever (and just to be sure, Beethoven repeats it 382 times in the first movement!). Beethoven’s Fifth started to get popular during WWII; the 4-note motif happens to be morse code for the letter V (as in “victory”), and the Allies adopted the symphony as their battle call (this irony would not have been lost on Herr Beethoven).

3. What’s your favourite “fifth?”

My favourite (speaking of musical battle calls) is Shostakovich’s. He wrote it to “redeem” himself after being denounced by Stalin for being a tad too “out there” and cacophonous. On the surface, his Fifth is patriotic, bombastic and proud – but there are sarcastic, subversive undertones that make it a fascinating (and sort of frightening) listen.

4. Where can we see the “fifths” in TV ads or movies?

Beethoven’s is the Fifth most used in films, in everything from Starsky and Hutch to this notable sequence from Saturday Night Fever. Then there’s the Robin Thicke song “When I Get you Alone”…the Judge Judy show…that new Google Chrome Ad…and of course, this fountain drinks ad.  Mahler’s Fifth became famous in Death in Venice; Sibelius’s is used in “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz; and Tchaikovsky might have actually liked this, as he did enjoy a smoke now and then: Shostakovich’s Fifth wasn’t used anywhere…everyone was too busy sampling his Seventh Symphony, which accompanied such distinctive ad campaigns as this one: (yes, that is Arnold Schwarzenegger)