Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Baptized December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany.
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria.

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804 by Mähler

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
Duration: ~40 minutes

The [amazon_link id=”0486260348″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] Symphony No. 5[/amazon_link]’s  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 [amazon_link id=”0486260348″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] Pastoral Symphony[/amazon_link]! In addition, Beethoven performed the premieres of his [amazon_link id=”3795766222″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] Fourth Piano Concerto[/amazon_link]  and the [amazon_link id=”B000002RVN” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] Choral Fantasy[/amazon_link] 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.

First Movement

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.

Example 1. The fate motif

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 theme. 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.

Example 2. The Horn Call and the second theme

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.

Example 3. Coda. Sequences derived from 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.

Second Movement

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.

Example 4. Second movement

The second theme is introduced by the clarinets and bassoons.

Example 5. Second theme

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. As if to make light of all that has come before, Beethoven releases the tension by employing the bassoon to tell “the moral of the story” over a jovial bouncing rhythm in the strings.  The music harkens back to what we have heard previously, but Beethoven has had enough, and the movement ends as though he orders the theme and variations out of the room and slams the door closed with a coda based on theme 1 in A flat.

Third Movement

The scherzo third movement begins back in C minor. As in the opening movement there are two phrases each separated by a dramatic pause.

Example 6. Scherzo first theme

Yes the shape of that theme does look familiar. In Beethoven’s sketchbooks were a few dozen measures of Mozart’s G minor symphony. This sets the stage for the return of the opening SSSL fate motif that is announced by the horns in dramatic short order, giving the symphony an immediately recognizable organic quality.

Example 7. Horns

The gloom is dispelled by a C major, with the low strings playing a vigorous fugue-like theme.  The music is playful, building to a fortissimo statement of the fate motif before quieting into a near chorale-like transition from the winds that returns us either to the opening material or directly into the coda (since Pierre Boulez’s habit of inserting a repeat in the scherzo, it has become increasingly acceptable to do so – as is the case with tonight’s performance. The repeat marks were written by Beethoven in the original performing score, but were deleted upon publication. There is hardly universal agreement on why this happened, whose decision it was, or if it was even Beethoven’s intent to remove the additional repeat, the inclusion of which is found in several examples of his music in this particular period – including the surrounding symphonies numbers 4,6 and 7.  Of further interest is that in Ferdinand David’s copy of the first edition referenced in the introduction to these notes, two extra bars are printed at this spot, leaving the question of which two of the four measures to eliminate.  While the later printings agree on one decision, Ferdinand David has marked out with several penciled “x”s the other two bars, citing a specific page of a newspaper article from 1870, making yet an entirely different option!).  A remarkable codetta follows with hushed statements of the fate motif passed between the winds and pizzicato violins.  Parts of the theme are gradually brought from darkness to light, with the solo timpani expanding the fate statement into 38 measures of repeated quarter notes that drives the music forward with a great crescendo and without pause directly into the triumphal final movement.

Fourth Movement

The finale bursts forth fortissimo in C major. The Trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon are heard for the first time, dispelling the gloom of C minor is dispelled by a theme that is as C major as you can get.

Example 8. Finale

The first theme followed by a second theme announced by the horns. The strings pick it up and begin to modulate.

Example 9. Second theme

In the second section (in G major, the dominant of C) are groups of four notes that are yet another variant of the fate motif, now appearing to have been set free.  These triplet figures rise and fall, under which in the bass is a four note motif that will be brought to the fore in the development.

Example 10. Second section

Example 11. Bass motif under second theme

There is yet another variant of the fate motif as the development begins. In the development the second theme is used extensively 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 meter but cast back into the dread c minor from which we had been given the impression we had been liberated.  The strings with the winds again begin to toss softly the horn theme from the third movement back and forth, leading the listener to believe that another long section is to be heard. But the detour is brief and we are not cheated. and soon we are returned to the recapitulation, giving 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. As the symphony reaches its conclusion the fate theme is heard in different rhythmic combinations until one final statement of the “three notes plus one note” theme is heard, punctuated by the entire orchestra in a firm C major.