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December2006
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Take 5

When Ludwig Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, beginning with the universally recognized four notes that the composer reportedly described as “that’s how fate knocks at your door,” he could not have realized that his masterwork would become one of the most famous symphonies of all time.

Larsen, artist. Beethoven series / BL, 1937. Created for the Federal Art Project Ludwig van Beethoven, composer. “Egmont; Overture,” published in this version in 1885

For better or worse, the work has entered the popular culture, having been used in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” and “Mickey, Donald and Goofy: The Three Musketeers,” in which the cartoon’s narrator sings “This is the end” to the symphony’s first four notes. There is a disco version called “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and even long-running animated TV series “The Simpsons” has used the Fifth, for an episode in which the town’s residents build a concert hall.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris, in his new book, “Beethoven: The Universal Composer,” “Of all the great composers, Beethoven is the most enduring in his appeal to dilettantes and intellectuals alike. What draws them is Beethoven's universality, his ability to embrace the whole range of human emotion, from dread of death to love of life -- and the metaphysics beyond -- reconciling all doubts and conflicts in a catharsis of sound.”

You can hear Morris discuss Beethoven in a Webcast from the Library of Congress.

Sheet music printed in America during the 19th century often reproduced Beethoven’s works. You can view these in “Music for the Nation”. Click on the “Search by Keyword” link and search “Beethoven.” You will get 77 “hits,” ranging from the Egmont Overture to the Andante from the Fifth Symphony.


A. Larsen, artist. Beethoven series / BL, 1937. Created for the Federal Art Project. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC2-873 DLC (color film copy slide); Call No.: POS - WPA - NY .L37, no. 4

B. Ludwig van Beethoven, composer. “Egmont; Overture,” published in this version in 1885. Music Division. Reproduction information: Call No.: M2.3.U6A44