Beethoven : Symphony No. 5
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Baptized December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
Composed in 1808.
First Performance: December 22, 1808 conducted by Beethoven at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 (alto,tenor,bass) trombones, timpani, and strings
The Symphony No. 5 premiere performance took place in the unheated Theater-an-der-Wien on the evening of December 22, 1808 with Beethoven conducting. That alone would have made this a memorable concert, but the evening also included the premiere of the Pastoral Symphony! In addition, Beethoven performed the premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy conducting from the piano. Not enough? The concert included two excerpts from the C Major Mass and the concert aria Ah, Perfido! as well. Although it is now universally known as the Fifth Symphony, it was performed on that concert after the Pastoral Symphony and was entitled No. 6, while the Pastoral was given the number 5. The manuscript of the C minor symphony does not have a date or number but the Pastoral does have the number 6 written on it in Beethoven’s rabid scrawl.
Beethoven made sketches for the Fifth Symphony as early as 1800 but most of it was composed between 1805 and 1808. Beethoven spent the summers of 1807 and 1808 in the town of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous testament in 1802. Much of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were written there.
The C minor first movement begins with what is mostly likely the most famous motif in all music; the so-called fate motif. Anton Schindler described this motif as “fate knocking at the door.” On the other hand Karl Czerny wrote that Beethoven heard a bird – the yellowhammer we hear in the Sixth Symphony – gave him the motif. If you were a Romantic writer which story would you choose – fate or the birdie?
The motif is presented con brio (with fire) by a unison tutti playing fortissimo as if to announce “Look at me! I’m important!” Indeed it is! This short-short-short-long (SSSL) rhythmic pattern pervades the entire work. To underscore its importance there is a fermata on the last note which allows the conductor to stay on that note as long as needed. The motif is then immediately sequenced down a step, again with a fermata on the last note.
After the halting four measure opening the motif gains momentum.
Suddenly everything comes to a halt with the horns blaring a variation of the motif to make way for the second them. The shape of their call is the same as the opening but the intervals are expanded. The second theme in E flat major provides relief from the darkness of C minor but not the SSSL rhythm which keeps poking its nose under the tent.
This lyric second theme is actually a variant of the horn call. Under the second theme rumblings of the fate motif are heard. They come to the fore as the exposition ends with a cascade of them in E flat major.
The development begins fortissimo with the fate motif ominously dispelling the light E flat end of the exposition. The fate motif is sequenced and imitated in many guises. The horn call becomes fragmented, first as two notes and then only one. The music comes to a standstill until a sudden burst of fate motifs leads into the recapitulation back in C minor. But the music seems to have lost its initial power as the oboe plays a brief plaintive cadenza. But then the first theme powerfully returns again with a modulating sequence that brings us to the horn call once again introducing the lyric theme 2. But this time theme 2 is not in E flat but in C major! It appears that a triumphal finale has been reached. But we are not there yet. An extended coda which amounts to a second development section begins.
The fate motif is hammered away again and once again the horn call disintegrates to two pitches. A new sounding theme is introduced but it is actually, like theme 2, derived from the horn call.
After an extended pedalpoint, there is a fortissimo second recapitulation where we seem to be back at the beginning of the movement with the fate motif played by the orchestra in unison. Theme 1 begins quietly and we are expecting it to once again metastasize but the movement ends abruptly.
The second movement is in A-flat major. It is a double theme and variations that begins with the violas and ‘celli playing a flowing dotted theme.
The second theme is introduced by the clarinets and bassoons.
There is an unexpected modulation to C major where we hear a triumphal version of the second theme. But the mood nor the key lasts and we slide back to A flat to begin the variations. There is a variation of theme 1 followed by theme 2, then a second variation on theme 1 followed again by one for theme 2. But then Beethoven begins to vary both at the same time. The coda is based on theme 1 in A flat.
The scherzo third movement begins back in C minor. As in the opening movement there are two phrases each separated by a dramatic pause.
Yes the shape of that theme does look familiar. In Beethoven’s sketchbooks were a few dozen measures of Mozart’s G minor symphony. We then hear the horns playing fortissimo the SSSL rhythm from the first movement’s fate motif.
The gloom is dispelled by the trio which is in C major. The low strings play a vigorous theme which is fugue-ish. The music is playful for a while but becomes quiet. Soon we are back to the scherzo and the first theme in C minor again. We then hear the horn theme but this time softly and in the winds with pizzicato strings as if it is gasping its last breath. There is a remarkable codetta where parts of theme 1 are gradually brought from darkness to light as the finale begins without a pause.
The finale bursts forth fortissimo in C major. The Trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon are heard for the first time. The gloom of C minor is dispelled by a theme that is as C major as you can get.
The first theme followed by a second part announced by the horns. The strings pick it up and begin to modulate.
The second theme in G major (the dominant of C) are groups of four notes first rising then falling. Under this theme in the bass is a four note motif that will come to the fore in the development.
There is yet another variant of the fate motif as the development begins. In the development the second theme is extensively used until the entire brass section takes up the bass motif. The music is building to a climax with everyone finally cranking away on a G major chord leading us to expect that C major first theme to bring us home in triumph. But no. We wind up not only back in 3/4 but in the dread c minor with the strings softly playing the horn theme from the third movement. The detour is brief and we are not cheated. The recapitulation gives us theme 1 in all its C major glory followed by theme 2. A coda begins with theme 2 and variants of theme 1 as the music marked sempre più allegro keeps building up steam until we hear the brass and winds play theme 1 fortissimo in C major. The final 40 measures – 40! – are nothing but dominant and tonic chords as if C major is beating its chest in victory.
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