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Beginning of Beethoven's symphony No.5

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Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
    Allegro con brio
    Andante con moto

Written in 1807-8, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the central work of its composer’s so-called "Middle Period", the high noon of his creative maturity. To this period belongs a string of his most original and powerful masterpieces; he had overcome the creative crisis of 1801-2, when his deafness had first become apparent, and as the affliction deepened in the years 1802-1811 he responded to it with music of unique strength and feeling. There seems to have been no particular reason why this symphony should have emerged as it did and when it did; indeed, Beethoven was working on it simultaneously with his sixth, and most gentle, symphony, the Pastoral, which was original numbered the fifth! But this Symphony in C minor has become, without question, the most famous symphony ever written, not only the definitive expression of Beethoven’s personal struggle but a pivotal masterpiece in the history of western music. The Fifth Symphony, for the first time, made a simple musical process – the transition from the key of C minor to the key of C major – express the most powerful human emotion in the most unambiguous terms. Every significant symphony since has been written under the influence of this achievement or in reaction against it; a list of symphonies founded directly upon it would begin with Beethoven’s own Ninth and include those of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Elgar, Sibelius, Nielsen, Shostakovich and countless more. The idea that this symphony expresses with unprecedented force – that of the individual’s struggle for self-realization – would become the defining ideal of the entire 19th Century Romantic movement, itself at the root of today’s ideal of liberal democracy. Even today, the impact of Beethoven’s artistic revolution, epitomized by this symphony, can be felt – contemporary "minimalist" composers such as John Tavener and Steve Reich write music which represents a conscious attempt to escape from the idea of the symphonic argument as personal struggle. For most listeners, though, it continues to be the means by which music can speak to them more directly and personally than any other art form.


Unsurprisingly, then, Beethoven’s Fifth has acquired an almost mythical status. Legends about it abound: a Napoleonic veteran leapt involuntarily to his feet and cried "C’est l’Empereur!" at the opening of the Finale, the composer Hector Berlioz witnessed fellow audience members fainting and gasping for breath at its first Paris performances. For the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the symphony "unfolded Beethoven’s romantic spirit in a climax rising straight to the end and carried the listener away irresistibly into the wondrous spirit world of the infinite…the sensitive listener will not be able to escape from that magical spiritual realm where he is surrounded by torment and joy depicted in sounds". Beethoven himself said of the opening bars "Thus Fate knocks at the door". By co-incidence, the Morse code symbol for "V" has exactly the same rhythm as those famous bars. And so they were broadcast throughout occupied Europe during World War II as the call-sign for the BBC’s underground service. For this reason, the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu incorporated them in his wartime orchestral lament "Memorial to Lidice"; and even in our time they remain one of the most powerful of musical symbols. "Da Da Da Daaa – it’s fate knocking at the door. That’s one of the biggest hits in history. There’s no video to it, he didn’t need one!"(Billy Joel, 1990).

It’s easy to forget, then, that this symphony is above all pure music, an extraordinary structure in sound. It is in standard classical symphonic form; two sonata-form movements framing an Andante and a Scherzo and Trio.
It received its première in Vienna on 22nd December 1808, in a concert that also included the premières of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, 4th Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasy, and excerpts from his Mass in C.

1. Allegro con brio. The rhythm of the famous opening figure underpins this entire torrential movement, and also recurs at crucial points in later movements. As it grows into tense and powerful musical paragraphs, it becomes clear that a tragic emotional conflict is under way. Beethoven heightens the power of the drama by contrasting moments of sweetness and reflection – the lyrical second subject, for example, and the poignant oboe cadenza that briefly halts the recapitulation at its most relentless.
2. Andante con moto. One of Beethoven’s most personal re-workings of an established form, a set of double variations after the manner of Haydn. The lilting main theme, initially presented by violas and ‘cellos, was originally sketched as a minuet. The flowing A-flat major calm is broken three times by triumphant bursts of C major, subsiding each time, through mysterious key changes, to the initial calm. The movement ends with a confident gesture.
3. Allegro. This scherzo opens in minor-key shadow. A quiet figure rises from the basses, hesitates, and is swept aside by a fierce march to the rhythm of the symphony’s opening motif. The trio section brings C-major relief with scurrying fugato basses, Beethoven’s finest black humor, but the return of the scherzo marks a strange transformation. Quiet pizzicato strings take the place of braying horns – the atmosphere is now one of hushed mystery and as the scherzo ends the inner strings hold a sustained chord. The timpani tap out a gentle rhythm, the violins toy with wisps of the scherzo, the tension builds to breaking point and with a tremendous crescendo the music sweeps headlong into –

4. Finale: Allegro – Presto. A great blaze of C major. Trombones and piccolo enter for the first time in any symphony: trombones were traditionally sacred or dramatic instruments, so their entry here reinforces what the music makes unambiguously clear – that this is the moment of spiritual triumph. The movement is a fully worked-out sonata-allegro of celebration, hesitating only as the scherzo theme briefly re-appears just before the recapitulation. This sinister presence acts as a reminder of just how hard won the victory has been, and so gives a guarantee of truth to the symphony’s jubilant and emphatic close.

Richard Bratby, 1999


Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67


(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany; Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria)

In March 1808, Beethoven wrote to Count Franz von Oppersdorff, “Your symphony is at last ready, but in case you do not want it let me know . . . . I am not well, and I am being treated for an injured finger. Things are going badly with me. The cost is 300 florins and the balance is due.” This was none other than the extraordinary groundbreaking fifth symphony, birthed in a time of great personal trauma for the composer. His impending deafness was frightening; Napoleon was marching over his homeland; and his brother had married a wretched woman whom the composer despised and dubbed “Queen of the Night.” Melvin Berger summarized, “The machinations of fate threatened to rob him of all that he held dear – love, freedom, and the joy of hearing and making music.”

Beethoven’s love of and commitment to making music transcended life’s blows. In 1,600 letters and 8,000 sketches within 70 notebooks we can find constant evidence of his discipline, dedication, and exhaustive critiques. “I am entirely devoted to my Muses,” Beethoven wrote to his publisher George Thomson, “and I always have been: in this alone do I find the joy of my life.” And a reason to live.

Classical symphonies produced by Haydn and Mozart were influential models for Beethoven, but ultimately he was compelled by his vision and purpose to infuse the symphonic idea and its architecture with greater complexity, extended proportions, dramatic content, and deep personalization. Beethoven wrote for more than entertainment: he wrote with a mission, which was no less than “the ennoblement of mankind.” The result was that in his nine completed symphonies, written over the span of his life, we find not only new approaches but the fulfillment of potential lying within the symphonic idea itself. His third symphony exemplified many of the new Beethoven developments in the genre, but his fifth symphony is possibly the most famous of the set.

After four years incubating, the stellar fifth premiered on December 22, 1808, modestly entering a parade of compositions featured on a giant program which included the Pastoral Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, the fourth piano concerto, and assorted movements from the Mass in C. Besides enduring the extraordinary length of the program, the audience was tested as well when the heating system on that December night at the Theater an der Wien broke down. Nonetheless, they were jolted to rapt attention by the Fifth. Its wild drive, high voltage tension, and unrelenting vehemence and emotion were overwhelming.

The first movement opens with the brazen four-note motto cell well known to us all: ta ta ta TA. (It is doubtful although Ries and Czerny both insisted that this aggressive four-note motif derived from the song of a chirping goldfinch.) One of Beethoven’s few comments on this work reads, “It (the theme) begins in my head (and also) the working out in breadth, height, and depth. It mounts, it grows, I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent as if in a single grasp.” The single grasp, in this case, is the captivating motive. Holding us poised and breathless on the extended fourth note, Beethoven does not consider the first impact sufficient and leads us to a repeat, this time on a lower tone. Again he holds precipitously on the fourth note before unleashing a movement unlike any other. This terse gripping motive becomes the gestating kernel of the whole movement. Like a sub-text, it haunts the entire movement: sometimes screaming, sometimes whispering and panting in the bottom of the orchestra, but never far from us. A lyrical second theme introduced by French horn makes an appearance, but offers no contest within the insistence of the dominating opening motif. A turbulent development (twisting, tossing, climaxing, seizing the motto) keeps tension high before Beethoven arrives at his recapitulation. This is introduced by a set of restless chords performed by winds and stings. A brief oboe cadenza announces the long coda wherein the composer hammers the motto again. “This is one of the most powerfully integrated movements in all symphonic literature.” (Edward Downes) Cohesion built around the opening kernel was unprecedented.

The second movement, Andante con moto, spins variations on two themes. Violas and cellos sing a lyrical theme in A-flat, which is followed by a more assertive tune in C Major, intoned by clarinets and bassoons. Within the variations Beethoven still cannot resist including rhythmic allusions to the omnipresent opening motif.
A churning scherzo marked Allegro contrasts sharply with the serenity of the second movement. Hushed cellos and basses restlessly stir at the opening, and then French horns blast a theme, which is undeniably akin to the kernel. These two ideas spar. A tender pianissimo (very quiet) section is underscored by muttering timpani, keeping the scherzo atmosphere fully charged. Eventually, the music yields to an extended crescendo and directly into the final movement.

The fourth movement, also marked Allegro, displays several brilliant themes in vivid settings. Herein, Beethoven added piccolo, contrabassoon, and three trombones to the orchestral palette, heightening color (glitter and depth) and dynamics, while expanding the symphonic canvas. (This was the debut of trombones in a symphony orchestra.) An extroverted march-like theme led by trombones provides a jolly opening. The mood remains optimistic, and Beethoven ultimately leads us to an assertive coda. Michael Steinberg wrote that this “victory symphony was a new kind of symphony and Beethoven’s invention here of a path from strife to triumph became a model for symphonic writing to the present day.” As Beethoven triumphed over his personal despair, so, too, did this symphony end in a triumph of spirit and soul.

Storming crescendos, dynamic extensions, torrential rhythms marking the fifth heralded a new kind of music. The single-mindedness and constant presence of the initial motif (the kernel), unstoppable, growing and changing throughout, heralded radical new procedures for musical logic and content. Beethoven wrote, “Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life . . . the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” The mystery of that mediation and the triumph of that experience lie at the heart of the miraculous effect and mission of his fifth symphony.
The Symphony’s last Classical Series performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was conducted by James Judd on September 22, 2001.


Symphony no. 9 in D minor, opus 125, Fourth movement "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller




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