Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Beethoven Symphony No. 5

The fate of a symhony

It goes without saying that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony represents the archetype of the symphonic form for many. The score, dedicated to Count Rasumovsky and Prince Lobkowitz, is constructed from the smallest amount of thematic material possible and yet is massively detailed and bursting with rhythmic energy and a full range of emotions. Its first performance was held in the Theater an der Wien on 22 December 1808 and it has gone down in history as being one of the most memorable gala evenings in music history. The winter was bitterly cold and the auditorium was unheated. Both singers and orchestra were not sufficiently prepared and the solo soprano suffered from crippling stage fright. Also being performed that evening were the Sixth Symphony, two concert arias, two movements from the Mass in C, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. As if that were not enough, Beethoven himself performed several lengthy improvisations at the piano. The general public’s attention span and concentration was sorely tested during this marathon, although the concert was a statement in many ways: this creative high point not only confirmed his reputation but squared it.

The Fate of a Symphony (Olga Scholten, 2016)
The Fate of a Symphony (Olga Scholten, 2016)

The composition of several works simultaneously was not unusual for Beethoven. The earliest sketches for the Fifth Symphony date from a decade earlier, around 1800. From 1804 to 1808 he beavered away at what today is known as the most popular and most frequently performed work of the entire classical orchestral repertoire and was working on many other compositions. The Fifth Symphony was the first work in which trombones became part of the symphony orchestra, the first in which the variation form was applied to two principal themes, and the first in which the music flowed in one unbroken line from the end of the third through to the fourth movement. The main reason, however, why the Fifth exemplifies how Beethoven set classical music on a new course at the beginning of the 19th century, is concealed in the most famous four notes in Western music history: the short-short-short-long motif that launches the symphony. It was described as ‘fate knocking at the door’ by Beethoven’s secretary and first biographer Anton Schindler, who is said to have had it from Beethoven himself; this, however, has never been proved.

It is, however, a fact that this symphony is not only a favourite of all the symphony orchestras in the world, but also that it is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth have gone on to lead an independent life far beyond the borders of the world of classical music thanks to disco, funk and hiphop arrangements, ringtones and Midi versions from Microsoft, not to mention Hollywood and The Simpsons. The same motif achieved historical resonance when it was used as propaganda material by the Nazis and even more so as a signal of resistance by the Allied forces. The BBC began its Free France wartime broadcasts with Beethoven’s notes representing the Morse code signal for the letter V — for victory. By coincidence the capital V can also be read as the Roman numeral for 5.

Beyond its first four notes, the symphony has also been a synonym for varied approaches and interpretations. Some of these associate the hammered opening with Beethoven’s increasing deafness and social isolation. Others explain the evolution of the motif as if it were a theatrical character continually placed in different contexts, an evolution in which steadfastness triumphs over fate. Others again can trace the heroic tone of French revolutionary songs in its martial accents. Militancy was very much in the air at that time; Europe groaned under the advances of Napoleon’s troops and alliances were quickly forged and as quickly broken. The Spanish, Portuguese and British resisted, but Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in 1808. The Swedes affiliated themselves with the English, whilst the Russians were first allies and then enemies of France; even the Turks and the Persians took sides in the struggles. The call for freedom and independence resounded both inside and outside Europe, in the fierce resistance to Napoleon Bonaparte, in the laws passed against slavery by the British parliament, in the ban on importing slaves to the United States and in the revolt of the Latin American lands against a weakened Spain.

Despite all such calamities, Beethoven made no mention of philosophical or dramatic meanings to be found in his much discussed symphony. His contemporary Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann described Beethoven in an influential review of his Fifth Symphony as a thoroughly Romantic composer, for his music ‘set in motion a mechanism of respect, fear, terror and pain. It is permeated with the incessant longing that is the essence of Romanticism’. We do not exaggerate today when we state that Beethoven’s Fifth contains a message for every age; it is as inexhaustible as the power contained in its first four notes.

This central motif creates a rhythmic pattern that controls the entire first movement; it even accompanies the short melodic theme. Its continual presence makes it a musical stem cell, a primary thought that maintains the tension from that first significant entry until its grimly determined end. It also leaves its imprint on the other movements as well and thereby creates a thematic unity that constitutes the musical heart of the symphony. This so-called cyclical principle has seldom been employed so consciously and so consequently.

The Andante con moto strikes out on a new path with gracious acceptance. Violas and cellos announce the main theme. The woodwind and then the violins take up the theme, after which several variations develop it further, by turns solemn, triumphant, contemplative, cheerfully marching and rejoicing. The Scherzo arises from a stealthy bass theme; the Fate motif is heard again in the horns and the themes alternate in the following development. Only a grotesque dancing interlude for cellos and double basses seems to defy Fate. A powerful crescendo opens the doors of the final movement wide: Beethoven reserved the most acoustically dominant of his instruments — trombones, contrabassoon and piccolo — for this apotheosis. The symphony arrives at a hammering and passionate outburst, a final reminder of the familiar motif, after which each instrumental group unleashes its full power in a brilliant conclusion.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood