Beethoven 5
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The four most clichéd notes in classical music were once the most revolutionary. For the first time a rhythm, rather than a melody, became the main subject of a symphonic movement – and not merely as a first theme to be stated and picked up again for a while in the development and recapitulation sections. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the first movement, and subsequently into the rest of the Symphony. The motive first appears as a repeated demand, subsequently expanded into a genuine melody in the first theme. It recurs as a throbbing accompaniment in bass and timpani in the second theme, all the way to the final cadence of the exposition.

Such an original symphonic structure did not come easily, especially to a composer who lacked the ever-ready melodic genius of a Mozart, Bach or Haydn, who all produced copiously on demand. A collection of the composer’s sketchbooks bears witness to the lengthy and often painful gestation of some of his greatest music. The Fifth Symphony took four years to complete, between 1804 and 1808. But Beethoven also had to eat, and during those four years he also produced the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three String Quartets Op. 59, the Mass in C and the Violin Concerto.

Although Beethoven had already been at work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony, he composed the Fourth in fairly short order in 1806 on commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count eventually paid the 500 florins agreed upon for the work and in 1807 commissioned another symphony with a down payment of 200 florins. Beethoven notified Oppersdorff in March 1808 that the Fifth Symphony was ready and that he should send the remaining 300 florins. But the Count sent only another installment of 150 florins, and by November Beethoven, in one of his less than ethical moves, apparently felt justified in selling the score to the publisher Gottfried Härtel. Upon finally paying in full, Oppersdorff received a copy.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at one of those monster public concerts common in the nineteenth century; on the program were premieres of the Sixth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, the aria "Ah! Perfido, the Choral Fantasia and several movements of the Mass in C. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the audience on their first encounter in a single evening with the "Pastoral" and the Fifth.

Because the Fifth Symphony is so familiar it is difficult to think of it as innovative, but it was not only the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif into the first movement that was new. It is the fact that this little rhythm becomes the motto that unifies the entire symphony. Example 1 In the first movement, the principal theme hammers away at the rhythm in almost every measure. Then, the second theme, which should provide a significant contrast, starts off with the motto in the solo horn, only afterwards becoming somewhat more gentle and legato – although that, too begins to ramp up the emotional tension as it continues. Example 2

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, involves its own kind of innovation. It is made up of two short juxtaposed, contrasting themes, the first in dotted rhythm, Example 3 the second a slow almost military theme in the brass. Beethoven produces from the two themes a double set of variations. And it should be noted that the second theme contains within it in augmentation the germinal four-note rhythm of the first movement. Example 4

After what has been called a "ghostly" opening of the scherzo, Beethoven takes up the motto again prominently in the horns, and it is this segment of the third movement that he chooses to repeat in the finale. Example 5

Symphony No. 5 has frequently been referred to as a struggle from darkness to light, but it is a commonplace that has palpable grounding in truth. Not only does the symphony begin in C minor and end in C major, but there is also the magnificent transition between the third and fourth movements, a kind of breaking through of sunlight clouds with violins stammering over throbbing timpani towards a cadence. Example 6 The eruption through to the triumphant finale paved the way for the symphonic writing of the future, including Beethoven's own Ninth, Example 7 Mendelssohn’s Third (The “Scottish”) and Brahms’s First.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017