Beethoven: Symphony no 5

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Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Everybody knows the opening to Beethoven’s 5th. Three short notes and a long one. What follows the initial statement of this iconic musical sound object is often less well known or appreciated.

In this symphony, Beethoven lays out the compositional highway for the rest of the 19th century. The headline is the unification of the disparate movements of a symphony into a single unit. The opening ta-ta-ta-taa of the symphony becomes a building block not only for the whole of the first movement, but for the other three movements as well. In the third and fourth movements it is stated quite literally, in the second a little more subtly but nevertheless there.

Beethoven takes this idea much further in the last movement of the 9th Symphony when he quotes from the first, second and third movements in the final choral movement.

The second big innovation is the seamless transition from the third to the fourth movement. There is no break between the two – instead, a magical and extended passage of hushed strings underpinned by a persistent, pulsing timpani suddenly erupts into the last movement.

Beethoven used this idea in the 6th Symphony too, transitioning from the storm movement into the finale without a break.

These ideas of cross-referencing thematic ideas and breaking down movement demarcations  and structures were subsequently adopted by many 19th century composers, but in particular Schumann and then Wagner. Wagner introduced the idea of the ‘leitmotif’ in his operas – themes that ‘belong’ to characters, but also objects and even emotions – e.g. the love motif from Tristan and Isolde or the sword motif in the Ring cycle. Richard Strauss took it even further with his tone poems – essentially symphonies in one movement. The seeds were sown here – in the 5th Symphony.

Having said all that, each movement of the symphony inhabits its own unique world. The first is made up entirely of that opening theme – from start to finish it pulses relentlessly with that one idea as its motor. Even the second theme has it (you’ll hear it in the horns). It is like being on a rollercoaster – no time to catch your breath until the end.

The second movement is just sublime and a total contrast. Serene, stately, and with a very strong emotional undercurrent. It is a narrative, a conversation between different sections of the orchestra and an opportunity for Beethoven to give the woodwinds equal prominence with the strings. This is something (the independence of the woodwinds) he had been working towards in the first four symphonies – in the Eroica it is the oboe that shines, in the fourth it is the clarinet. But here, in this movement there are whole passages where the flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons have the whole stage to themselves, leaving the strings to respond once they have made their point. The second subject with trumpets and woodwinds hints at the triumphant nature of the fourth movement still to come as well as containing a clear reference to the ta-t-a-ta-taa theme, albeit in a slower and more stately version.

The third movement abandons all pretence of being a ballroom minuet, its traditional role in a symphony. Beethoven more or less invented the Scherzo, a much faster, more rhythmic take on the ¾ dance rhythm of the minuet - it is hard to see Viennese aristocrats gliding across the ballroom floor to that kind of energetic impulse. The third movement of the Eroica is a great example.

Here though, he re-invents the form completely – labelled with a simple ‘Allegro’, it has an elegant opening idea which is definitely still dance-like, followed by the ta-ta-ta-taa of the first movement, played in full voice by the horns. These two ideas are repeated twice more - with each repetition, the themes and accompaniments acquire embellishments, extra notes and a more florid style.  The trio, traditionally a much more gentle and relaxed counter-weight to the minuet theme, is instead a frantic rush of notes played by the cellos, followed by a burst of fugal counterpoint. When the minuet theme returns it is played by pizzicato strings with little interjections from the woodwinds. This is a wonderful example of Beethoven’s genius – instead of ending the movement as it began, he presents the return of the opening theme in a hushed, delicate environment, preparing the way for the music to sink into the magic of timpani and strings mentioned above.

Beethoven leaves his last big surprise for the very end. Traditionally, a symphony will end in the key it started in – so this symphony’s last movement should be in C minor – but – it is in C Major instead, befitting the triumphal and celebratory nature of the movement as a whole. To our 21st century ears, this is not a big deal – but in 1808 it certainly would be! We are back on the roller coaster, hurtling along at full speed until the final coda which ends in the longest ‘The End’ in musical history. It is totally appropriate – the journey through this massive symphony, full of innovation, breadth of emotion and style could only be brought to an end with an extended foot on the brakes.

Last, but by no means least, Beethoven also introduces the piccolo and trombones for the first time as bona-fide members of the symphony orchestra. There are some prior rare instances such as Mozart's Overture to 'The Magic Flute' where trombones are used, but there they have a special, ceremonial function. In this respect too, Beethoven is pushing at the boundaries, expanding the orchestra with new instruments and colours.

Perhaps, if you see the programme for the concert in Vienna which premiered the 5th Symphony in 1808, you will get some inkling of who Beethoven was. Apart from the 5th Symphony, it included the premiere of the 6th Symphony (the Pastoral), the 4th Piano Concerto, the choral fantasy, some arias and an improvisation by Beethoven on the piano just before the interval. The concert went on for 4 ½ hours and apparently it was freezing….

Richard Gonski
December, 2022

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