Sakura Salon 3/30/14 – Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony


 Symphony no. 5 in C minor  Opus 67

There is a difficulty in presenting this piece, since the sheer familiarity of the piece can sometimes be a barrier to the full appreciation of what is, despite everything, still one of the great masterpieces of the early nineteenth century.  Perhaps the answer is to listen, as it were, with fresh ears, and put oneself in the place of the audience at the first performance in December 1808, who, even if they were familiar with the Eroica, must surely have been astonished at the force and compressive power of this awesome vision of triumph over tragedy.


I. Allegro con brio    (Fast (march tempo), with spirit)

Da-Da-Da-Dummm….  And so, it begins. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds its hammer blows of fate. Those first notes of Beethoven’s symphony have been heard, interpreted, and explained as many many things…  and more. It’s the single most famous symphonic trajectory of expressive minor-key darkness to coruscating major-key light.

The pounding beats of the first movement’s famous main subject dominate the entire movement to an unprecedented degree, indeed to such an extent that the concentration on rhythmic development derived from this short figure virtually excludes any melodic or textural elaboration at all.

They’re notes that are so familiar that we don’t even hear them properly today. Quite possibly the only life-forms who now really hear the ambiguities in the opening of Beethoven’s 1808 symphony are infants or extra-terrestrials. By this I mean is that this symphony doesn’t begin in C minor – the key it says it’s in on the title page. In fact, it’s not until the four-note rhythm is played a third time that we really know we’re in C minor, rather than what could be E flat major. You see, if you hum the first four pitches of the piece – da-da-da-DUM; da-da-da-DUM, you could still conceivably be listening to a symphony in a major key, if you were next to sing the note of your first “DUM” and harmonise it with a major chord… The point is that this is only the first way that music we take for granted – the single most forceful, electrifying, and recognizable opening to a symphony – is actually much more complex and multi-layered than we realize.

The power, concentration and white-hot compression of Beethoven’s music is staggering. The first movement creates its tumultuous organic chemistry of interrelationships from the particles of the notes it started with; in different guises, the four-note rhythmic idea permeates the rest of the symphony as well; then comes …..

II. Andante com moto (Slower (walking pace) but with motion)

….the elaborate variations of the slow movement, and its teeming effulgence of string writing that is a lyrical, long-breathed structural counterpoint to the first movement’s explosive fragments.

The slow movement is effectively a set of continuous variations, linked by alternating themes.  After the principal subject, which is given out by violas and cellos over a pizzicato bass, the secondary theme begins quietly in the same key (A flat) but after a moment’s hesitation suddenly breaks out triumphantly into C major.  Psychologically this is of great significance since this is destined to be both the mood and key of the all-important last movement.


III. Allegro

The scherzo is one of Beethoven’s most obvious borrowings from Mozart: he quotes and subtly transforms the opening of the finale of Mozart’s 40th Symphony to create his own theme; and out of this world of shadows the horns blare out another version of the 3+1 rhythmic idea, this time reduced to a single pitch.

No break, and an incredible transition into …..


IV. Allegro 

The transition from the scherzo to the finale is one of the dramatic masterstrokes of orchestral music. From the mist of desolate memories of the scherzo’s opening theme, underscored by the timpani’s ominous heartbeat, the violins’ arpeggios climb until they reach a tremolo, a crescendo and a blaze of unadulterated C major glory – and the start of the finale, with its trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon, all held in reserve by Beethoven until this climactic movement.

The brilliant finale, with its additional piccalo and trombones (used for the first time in a symphony) resolves all uncertainties, with the recall of the scherzo material before the recapitulation providing final evidence of the interrelationship between the movements.  This is indeed, to use Paul Bekker’s term, a “finale-symphony”, one in which the earlier movements lead inexorably to the C major finale as the triumphant culmination of the work;  with it the concept of the symphony is notably extended.


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