Beethoven made his first sketches for the Fifth Symphony in 1804. He composed the bulk of the symphony in 1807-08, while working concurrently on the Sixth Symphony, and he introduced both works during a four-hour marathon concert in Vienna on December 22, 1808, at which the frigid temperatures and under-rehearsed orchestra made more of an impression than the immortal music heard there for the first time.
The Fifth Symphony comes from the heart of Beethoven’s “middle” period, a phase when his encroaching deafness changed his relationship to composing and performing, and when the crystalline classicism of his early works gave way to a more focused and concentrated manner of writing. Rather than issuing flowing melodies, Beethoven’s quintessential works from this period build highly integrated forms out of compact, elemental materials.
The Fifth Symphony begins with the most famous musical cell from all of Beethoven’s ouevre—perhaps the most recognizable motive ever penned by a composer. Beginning in the tragic key of C minor, the orchestra delivers four unadorned notes: three short repetitions of G dropping to a sustained E-flat. The legend that Beethoven described this opening motive as “fate knocking on the door” to his assistant is most likely apocryphal, but the description has stuck as a fitting metaphor for the tense foreboding contained within those four notes. This one motive fuels the entire first movement, and traces of it return later in the symphony.
(As a side note, the Fifth Symphony reached what may have been its height of popularity during World War II, when it became associated with the Allied “V for Victory” media campaign. The Morse code for the letter V is three dots and a dash, just like Beethoven’s motive, so the BBC adopted the start of the symphony as its call sign for broadcasts to occupied Europe.)
The Andante con moto second movement features a double set of variations, alternating the development of two contrasting themes. Some of the accompanying rhythms echo the short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern from the first movement, contributing to the symphony’s organic cohesion. The Scherzo re-treads the central tonal conflict of the work, juxtaposing a moody first theme in C minor and a spry fugato section in C major. A coda builds tension that releases directly into the concluding Allegro, which adds piccolo and trombones to the scoring for extra orchestral brilliance. With this grand finale—the longest movement of the symphony—Beethoven’s Fifth completes its journey from a fateful knock to a triumphant resolution.
Aaron Grad ©2013
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