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Notes on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

Beethoven's Fifth did not immediately become the world's (or even the composer's) most famous symphony. During his lifetime, the Third, the "Eroica," was performed more often and the second movement of the Seventh (movements were often heard separately) deemed "the crown of instrumental music." But over the course of the 19th century, the Fifth gradually came to epitomize Beethoven's life and musical style. It often appeared at the inaugural concerts of new orchestras, such as when The Philadelphia Orchestra first sounded in November 1900.

The Fifth Symphony picked up further associations in the 20th century, be they of Allied victory during WWII or through its appearance in commercials and popular culture. It is easy to account for both the popularity and the representative status of the Fifth. (The celebrated music critic Donald Francis Tovey called it "among the least misunderstood of musical classics.") With the rise of instrumental music in the 18th century, audiences sought ways to understand individual works, to figure out their meaning. One strategy was to make connections between a piece of music and the composer's life. In this no life and work has proved more accommodating than Beethoven's, whose genius, independence, eccentricities and struggles with deafness were well known already in his own time.

Music and Meaning

In the fall of 1801, at age 30, Beethoven revealed for the first time the secret of his increasing hearing loss and stated in a letter that he would "seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely." It has not been difficult to relate such statements directly to his music. The struggle with "Fate" when it "knocks at the door," as he allegedly told his assistant Anton Schindler happens at the beginning of the Fifth, helped endorse the favored label for the entire middle period of his career: Heroic. The Fifth Symphony, perhaps more than any of his other symphonies, more than those with explicit extra-musical indications like the "Eroica," "Pastoral," or Ninth, seems to present a large-scale narrative. According to this view, a heroic life struggle is represented in the progression of emotions, from the famous opening in C minor to the triumphant C-major coda of the last movement some 40 minutes later. For Hector Berlioz, the Fifth, more than the previous four symphonies, "emanates directly and solely from the genius of Beethoven. It is his own intimate thought that is developed; and his secret sorrows, his pent-up rage, his dreams so full of melancholy oppression, his nocturnal visions and his bursts of enthusiasm furnish its entire subject, while the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral forms are there delineated with essential novelty and individuality, endowing them also with considerable power and nobility."

In Beethoven's Time

Beethoven wrote the Symphony over the space of some four years, beginning in the spring of 1804, during the most productive period of his career. Among the contemporaneous works were the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, Mass in C, three "Razumovsky" string quartets, the first two versions of his lone opera Fidelio, and many other works. Large-scale pieces like the opera, or commissions like the Mass, interrupted his progress on the Fifth, most of which was written in 1807 and early 1808.

The Symphony was premiered later that year together with the Sixth (their numbers in fact reversed) at Beethoven's famous marathon concert at Vienna's Theater an der Wien on December 22, which also included the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto (the composer was soloist), two movements from the Mass, the concert aria Ah! Perfido, and the "Choral" Fantasy, Op. 80. Reports indicate that all did not go well. Second-rate musicians playing in third-rate conditions after limited rehearsal had to struggle their way through this demanding new music, and things fell apart during the "Choral" Fantasy. But inadequate performance conditions did not dampen enthusiasm for the Fifth Symphony, which was soon recognized as a masterpiece. The novelist, critic, and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a long and influential review, ushering in a new era in music criticism that hailed "Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite."

A Closer Look

Another reason for the great fame and popularity of this Symphony is that it distills so much of Beethoven's musical style. One feature is its "organicism," the fact that all four movements seem to grow from seeds sown in the opening measures. While Beethoven used the distinctive rhythmic figure of three shorts and a long in other works from this time (Tovey remarked that if this indeed represents fate knocking at the door it was also knocking at many other doors), it clearly helps to unify the entire Symphony. After the most familiar of openings (Allegro con brio), the piece modulates to the relative major key and the horns announce the second theme with a fanfare using the "fate rhythm." The softer, lyrical second theme, first presented by the violins, is inconspicuously accompanied in the lower strings by the rhythm. The movement features Beethoven's characteristic building of intensity, suspense, a thrilling coda, and also mysteries. Why, for example, does the oboe have a brief unaccompanied solo cadenza near the beginning of the recapitulation. Beethoven's innovation is not simply that this brief passage may "mean" something, but that listeners are prompted in the first place to ask themselves what it means.

The second movement (Andante con moto) is a rather unusual variation form in which two themes alternate, the first sweet and lyrical, the second more forceful. Beethoven combines the third and fourth movements, which are played without pause. In earlier symphonies he had already replaced the polite minute and trio with a more vigorous scherzo and trio. In the Fifth the Allegro scherzo begins with a soft ascending arpeggiated string theme that contrasts with a loud assertive horn motive (again using the fate rhythm). The trio section features extraordinarily difficult string writing, in fugal style, that defeated musicians in early performances. Instead of an exact return of the opening scherzo section, Beethoven recasts the thematic material in a completely new orchestration and pianississimo dynamic. The tension builds with a long pedal point—the insistent repetition of the same note C in the timpani—that swells in an enormous crescendo directly into the fourth movement Allegro, where three trombones, contrabassoon, and a piccolo join in of the first time in the piece. This finale, like the first movement, is in sonata form and uses the fate rhythm in the second theme. The coda to the Symphony may strike listeners today as almost too triumphantly affirmative as the music gets faster, louder, and ever more insistent. Indeed, it is difficult to divest this best known of symphonies from all the baggage it has accumulated through nearly two centuries and to listen with fresh ears to the shocking power of the work and to the marvels that Beethoven introduced into the world of orchestral music.

Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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Christopher H. Gibbs