Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 (1808)
Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Allegro con brio
- Andante con moto
The bars that open the fifth symphony are probably the most famous in all classical music. The rhythm corresponds to ‘V’ for Victory in morse code, so the motif was used to introduce BBC news bulletins during World War 2. The remark attributed to Beethoven that the opening motif represents “Fate knocking at the door” was probably apocryphal and more likely an invention of one of his younger friends Anton Schindler or Ferdinand Ries.
The first sketches followed completion of the third symphony in 1804. Completion of the fifth was intermingled with that of many other major works. Eventually, it was premiered four years later at a marathon concert (even by the standards of the day) in which, amongst other works, the 6th symphony, the 4th piano concerto and the Choral Fantasy were also premiered! Suffering 4 hours in the bitter cold caused one patron to remark: “One might have even too much of a good thing”. The rough and unsympathetic performance also contributed to an initially unfavourable reception. A performance a year later, however, resulted in a rapturous review by the influential critic E.T.A. Hoffmann and the symphony rapidly became established in the repertoire of most major orchestras.
In its expressiveness and power this symphony epitomises what music is all about. Despite its familiarity today, its novelty should not be underestimated. The progression from movement to movement, from conflict to resolution and the brilliant transition from the minor key to the triumphant C major of the final movement featuring trombones set the scene for many symphonies of the Romantic period. As Beethoven described it in the notebook of one of his composition pupils: “Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”
The famous opening motif permeates the first movement. Through the careful weighting of individual climaxes, Beethoven builds a movement of enormous power, finally climaxing in a series of stark hammer blows.
The second movement is a set of variations on two themes, one gentle, the other heroic. The tension between these moods holds our attention through to the final bar.
After a querulous introduction to the tempestuous Scherzo, the horns blaze out a version of the fate motif. The furious central fugue, introduced by the cellos and basses, precedes the return of the Scherzo theme pizzicato, that dies away to almost nothing. Eventually an increasingly rapid build-up of intensity led by the timpani leads directly into the blazing sunshine of the final movement.
The triumphant and joyful momentum of the finale is interrupted by a worrying reworking of the final C-minor Scherzo theme, before our emotions are again reassured in an increasingly urgent, triumphant C-major coda.
Performed: 1969, 1970, 1976, 1992, Nov 2009, March 2021