Symphony No. 5 Op. 67

Ludwig van Beethoven
Composed 1807-1808

September 6-8, 2013
Edo de Waart, conductor
1 Allegro con brio 0:07:33 Add to Playlist Play Now  
2 Andante con moto 0:09:23 Add to Playlist Play Now  
3 Allegro 0:05:03 Add to Playlist Play Now  
4 Allegro 0:11:20 Add to Playlist Play Now  
  Entire Recording 0:33:19 Add to Playlist Play Now  
Ludwig van Beethoven

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