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Tempting Fate: Classical Music’s “Fate Motifs”

The Ether Game Brain Trust explores the fickle finger of fate this game!

Rolling the dice

Photo: Jo Christian Oterhals (Flickr)

We're leaving things up to the roll of the dice this week!

We’re looking at the fickle finger of fate this week, as the Ether Game Brain Trust dives into the pervasive use of the “fate motif” in pieces of classical music. Here are some examples:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony begins with the most famous “fate motif”: bum-bum-bum-BUM! However, it was only Beethoven’s biographer who said that it represented “Fate knocking at the door.” Many scholars don’t believe that’s what it really means.
  • Fate is at the heart of La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi. Some singers think that the opera is cursed, after a singer died while performing it at the Met in 1960!
  • The “Hammer Of Fate” comes down in the 6th symphony by Gustav Mahler…literally. He uses a gigantic wooden hammer in the finale movement to achieve the right sound of the mighty blows of fate that strike the hero of the story.
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is often associated with fate (and given the nickname “Fate.”) Although, Tchaikovsky thought his program was much more complicated than “fate.” “Fate” was only represented by the opening notes!
  • A “fate motif” makes an appearance in Carmen by Georges Bizet. It’s a languid, minor mode five-note motive that first appears in the overture. It appears over and over throughout the opera, and then again at the opera’s close when Carmen is killed.
  • Johannes Brahms wrote his Song Of The Fates while on summer vacation, and furiously wrote it while sitting on a beach, staring at the waves.
  • Pelleas und Melisande by Arnold Schoenberg is one of those pieces that also contains a “fate motif” in its opening measures. The play Pelleas et Melisande by Maurice Maeterlinck inspired works by Schoenberg, Debussy, Faure, and Sibelius.

See the full playlist from our fate motif episode of the show below. And don’t forget to check out our Fateful podcast selection, for more Ether Game fun!

Music Heard On This Episode

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