Opening Night: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
- September 7, 2013
From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach directed music for the principal churches of Leipzig. While his church duties required him to compose mostly sacred music, he found a secular outlet in the Collegium Musicum, an amateur ensemble originally founded by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) during his student days. Bach wrote four Orchestral Suites—or Ouvertures, as he called them—for the Collegium Musicum, including the Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major, composed around 1725. (The numbering of the suites, incidentally, has no relationship to their chronology; the first and fourth suites are the earliest, from around 1725, the third dates to circa 1731, and the second probably appeared in 1739.)
The Fourth Orchestral Suite opens with an Overture modeled after the French style. It launches into a grand introduction built from dotted rhythms, continues with a fast fugue in a rolling 9/8 meter, and recaps the slower, ceremonial music at the end. As was often the case, Bach repurposed this secular music for a sacred work, the Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110) that he introduced on Christmas day in 1725.
The middle movements of the suite constitute a series of dances borrowed from French court traditions. The Bourrées are arranged in a da capo pairing, in which the music returns “to the head” (da capo in Italian) of the first dance at the end of the second. Both sections incorporate fanciful accompaniment figures that nearly outshine the foreground themes—a rising triad in the first Bourrée, and scurrying sixteenth-notes in the second. The Gavotte features a heavy pulse of two beats per measure, with the introductory upbeat of each phrase emphasized. The bass instruments are the first to introduce a quick, galloping figure that circulates through the orchestra and enlivens the stout cadence of the music. The Menuets form another da capo set, elaborating the elegant dance style in 3/4 meter. The trumpets and timpani sit out both Menuets, and the second Menuet thins the texture further, leaving just strings and harpsichord. The brief absence of the trumpets and timpani makes their entrance all the more brilliant at the start of the closing Réjouissance [rejoicing], a buoyant form associated with celebrations.
Aaron Grad ©2008
Two of Salzburg’s most powerful families joined for the wedding of Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xaver Späth on July 22, 1776. The bride’s father, Sigmund Haffner, had been a wealthy businessman and the town’s mayor; after his death in 1772, his son (also Sigmund) took charge of the family’s affairs, including his sister’s wedding.
The younger Sigmund Haffner asked his friend since childhood, Mozart, to contribute party music for the opulent festivities. Mozart responded with an eight-movement Serenade in D major, a work of unprecedented scope and sophistication in a genre that most composers of the day treated as disposable background music. The Haffner Serenade debuted the night before the wedding, with Mozart likely conducting and playing the solo violin part himself. Recognizing that this serenade warranted more than a single use, Mozart and his father, Leopold, bundled the five movements without solo violin into a symphony, adding only a part for timpani (written in Leopold’s hand). Mozart performed the new “symphony” at least twice in the following years. It should not be confused with the later Haffner Symphony No. 35, extracted from a different serenade written for Sigmund’s ennoblement in 1782.
The Haffner Serenade’s opening movement has a celebratory, regal character befitting its original function. Perhaps Mozart turned heads with the tense development sequence of unstable dissonances and minor chords, but the music circles back to the main theme so deftly that the disturbance is instantly forgiven.
The next three movements feature a solo violin, essentially creating a small concerto within the larger form of the serenade. (Even the key settings—outer movements in G major surrounding the minuet in G minor—set these movements apart from the bulk of the D-major serenade). In the ambling Andante movement, the violin weaves florid trills and arpeggios among arioso melodies. The soloist leaves the sober minuet to the orchestra but rises again in the contrasting trio section, joined only by the woodwinds for an airy, G-major escapade. A vibrant Rondo concludes the violin showcase—as well as the present performance, which features the first four of the Serenade’s eight movements.
Aaron Grad ©
They are the most recognizable four notes in all of music.
But what do they mean?
“Fate knocking at the door,” some, familiar with the legend of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, will answer. And, yes, that notion captures the awesome effect of that notorious motif quite precisely. But those four notes, so pregnant with significance, herald something even mightier. In 1803, Beethoven declared, “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.” Four years later, the new direction of Beethoven’s artistic pursuits would be made manifest in resounding fashion in the sea-parting Fifth.
It must be stated at the outset that that consequential motif—Da-da-da-daaaa…—is not much of a melody. And, realizing this, one might consider the question, Well, then, what does make Beethoven so great? If not his melodies, perhaps his harmonies. (But think of the harmonic simplicity of the “Ode to Joy.”) Not his harmonies, then, but, presaging the likes of Stravinsky and Messiaen, it must be his rhythmic creativity. (But, the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony.) Nothing groundbreaking in Beethoven’s approach to rhythm. What, then? His counterpoint? orchestration?
No, what makes Beethoven Beethoven has not to do with the musical idea itself, but with what he does with the musical idea. Hear, in the Fifth, the immensity of that four-note motif: never had such a compact gesture been deployed to such thrilling effect. It serves as the foundational building block of the tautly dramatic Allegro con brio—a movement of remarkably limited harmonic range. From C minor—the Symphony’s home key, and more broadly, the customary key of Beethoven’s darkest moods—the work proceeds to E-flat major for the lyrical second theme (still underpinned by those incessant four notes); the subsequent development section oscillates between C minor and F minor, with only a brief moment in G major, and otherwise hardly any major chords at all. This spartan harmonic setting serves only to sharpen the pointed intensity of the movement’s germinal four-note motif. “The dominating motto and the rhythmic and harmonic compression create the force behind the first movement,” writes Lewis Lockwood, “which unleashes a tragic power in the symphonic domain that audiences had not known before.”
Those four notes are the DNA, not only of the opening movement, but, indeed, of the entire Symphony, appearing in various guises in each of its four movements. Stripped of its upbeats and ornaments, the lyrical first theme of the Andante con moto follows the same short-short-short-long pattern; if not immediately evident there, the regal second theme, set fortissimo in the oboes, trumpets, and horns, brings the rhythmic motif into clear focus. The third movement Scherzo presents an even purer distillation of the four-note motif, presenting it with a martial sternness.
The passage from the Scherzo into the Finale represents one of Beethoven’s most breathtaking compositional accomplishments. The Scherzo’s forceful carriage diminishes to a pianississimo whisper, and a hushed tension builds as the strings sustain a dominant pedal; an overwhelming crescendo explodes in an incandescent C major at the arrival of Symphony’s concluding Allegro.
Beethoven’s use of that four-note rhythmic motif to bind the Symphony’s four movements together contributes to the work’s sense of narrative unity (a quality which places the Fifth Symphony alongside the Sixth, the Pastoral, a musical journey of equally imaginative conception, and which was premiered on the same evening). The Fifth Symphony’s declamatory strength—that quintessentially Beethovenian quality of empowering the music to say something—signals the fulfillment of the “new path” to which Beethoven aspired at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and has installed this symphony as arguably the most iconic work in the classical repertoire. The nineteenth-century critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote, “How this magnificent composition carries the listener on and on in a continually ascending climax into the ghostly world of infinity! … [T]he human breast, squeezed by monstrous presentiments and destructive powers, seems to gasp for breath; soon a kindly figure approaches full of radiance, and illuminates the depths of terrifying night.”
Patrick Castillo ©2014