December 12, 2016. Beethoven. This week we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 236th birthday. He was baptized on December 17th of 1770, so it’s often assumed that he was born the day before, on December 16th. We alternate the celebration by either focusing on the piano sonatas written during a certain period, or on his symphonies. Last year it was symphonies nos. 3 and 4, and today we’ll present the next one, probably his most celebrated, symphony no. 5. It was written between 1804 and 1808 and premiered in Vienna on December 22nd of 1808 with Beethoven conducting (it’s worth reading about the amazing concert at which the Symphony was presented: events like that do not happen often, if ever). The Fifth is one of the most recorded compositions in history so to select one is impossible. We wanted to go for a Furtwangler recording, but their audio quality isn’t great. Everybody knows the Karajans (there are several and practically all are wonderful), so we decided on a superb recording made in 1975 by the late Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy it here. ♫
Symphony no. 5. As familiar and beloved as the Eroica, Seventh, or Choral Symphonies may be, none approach the immortal status of Beethoven’s own Symphony No. 5. Not only is it the one work most associated with its composer’s name, it is the work most synonymous with the word “symphony” itself. The hammer blows of its opening notes, so well-known even outside of classical music, are instantly recognizable. Even to merely distinguish the symphony by its key – “the C minor” – conjures the same association as saying “Beethoven’s Fifth.”
Beethoven began work on what would become the Fifth Symphony in 1805, shortly after completing the Eroica. As was mentioned in the discussion of the Symphony No. 4, a possible combination of artistic judgment – that so stern a composition as the projected C minor Symphony should not follow one as equally grand and serious – and his engagement to the Countess Theresa Brunswick prompted Beethoven to temporarily set aside the C minor and compose instead the ebullient Symphony in B-flat major. The C minor Symphony was then taken back up in 1807 and completed in 1808. Thus, the composition of the work spans much of Beethoven’s doomed engagement to the Countess – its first sketches predating the engagement, and its completion occurring during the troublesome period in which the lovers were separated, which led eventually to Beethoven himself breaking off the engagement in 1810. The completion of the C minor Symphony also coincided with the composition of its successor, the Pastoral. Both works were jointly dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky, premiered together in 1808, and published the following year.
The premiere took place on December 22, 1808 in Vienna during a colossal program directed by the composer himself that included the Pastoral Symphony, selections from the Mass in C, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy. Curiously, on that program, the Pastoral Symphony was performed first and given as No. 5, while the C minor was performed during the concert’s latter half and designated as No. 6. The numbers were not reversed until the publication of the score and parts the following year. Despite a program filled with such remarkable compositions, the premiere of the Fifth Symphony was rather lackluster. The sheer length of the concert exhausted the audience, and the orchestra was ill-prepared for the Herculean task. However, it was not long before the Symphony met with success. E. T. A. Hoffman penned an enthusiastic and lavish review of the work in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. It premiered in England in 1816, in Paris in 1828, and was performed in the inaugural concert of the New York Philharmonic in 1842. By then, it was a staple of the orchestra repertoire, even outpacing Beethoven’s other symphonies in number of performances. (Continue reading here).
Every bit as serious and revolutionary as the Eroica, the C minor Symphony, however, makes its mark in a different manner. The Eroica was the necessary culmination of the expansions in form and intensity of its two predecessors. While the Eroica was at times episodic and its heroic argument carried out to equally heroic proportions, the C minor adopts a severe terseness, a brusqueness well-suited to the portrait of its particular hero. Compared to the opening movement of the Eroica with its lengthy outer sections and episodic development, that of the Fifth is a tautly conceived sonata design. Only in the length and importance of the coda, which is a hallmark of many of Beethoven’s compositions, can a comparison be found with the Eroica. Similarly, the Andante second movement could not be more different from the Eroica’s grand Funeral March. A set of variations, its concentration upon a single theme of unusual length drew the criticism of wearisome from those who were unable to discern its beauty. Equally so, the Scherzo third movement, though not so named, is far removed from that of the Third Symphony. Here, the capriciousness of that movement would be entirely out of character. Instead, Beethoven lifts into the listener into a mysterious, ethereal world, and thereby transports him or her into the glorious realms of the Finale.
The four notes with which the C minor Symphony opens is unmistakable and strike like the blows of a hammer. Twice the motif is given, first within the tones of the tonic chord, then again in those of the dominant seventh, each time pausing on the last note. That, in essence, is the first theme of the movement. Its brevity was certainly a shock to those who, still clinging to the old manners of Haydn and Mozart, expected the dignity of a melodious first subject. The motif dominates the entirety of the first thematic section and is hardly absent from a single measure. As the second theme approaches, the horns, in unison, hammer out the motif once more. As they fade away, the lyrical theme that ensues is the perfect foil to the brusque motif. Passed between the violins and winds, it, too, however, obsesses over single graceful motivic figure, like the persistent, consoling touch a hand attempting to calm the preceding rage. As the development section begins, the principal motif is taken up again. Within the section’s short expanse, it become the instigator of a dramatic conflict, demonstrating Beethoven’s ability to wring the most substance from his themes. As an extension of the motif itself, the transitory passage that had led into the second theme is also taken up and developed in its own right. Indeed, it becomes the means by which the development is brought to a close, as its notes are picked apart in isolated chords between winds and strings, diminishing in volume as if failing from exhaustion. With that the recapitulation is reached. Unlike the Eroica, Beethoven reprises his theme without significant alteration, though there are noticeable changes in orchestration. The most striking change occurs at the very beginning. What had been a lone G held by the violins in the exposition now becomes a poignant, unmeasured solo for the oboe. Despite all the struggle thus far, perhaps the entire conflict of the movement is most succinctly expressed in this one solo. The coda, as is to be expected, is significant in length. Its most prominent feature, developing out of the principal motif with gritted teeth in an effort to overcome all adversity, is a new theme rising defiantly through the tonic scale.
After the fierce struggle of the opening movement, the Andante con moto in A-flat major is a welcomed relief. A set of variations, its charm and grace hints back to the ethereal Adagio of the Symphony No. 4. It is, however a curious set of variations. The theme itself is quite lengthy (forty-eight measures in total) and encompasses several distinct ideas. Without introduction, the first part of the theme is given, a dolce tune heard in the violas and cellos. This is answered by a beautiful descending passage in the flutes, followed by an even richer variant of it in the violins. A third idea, also marked dolce, is then announced by the clarinets and bassoons, and then repeated with the full force of the trumpets and horns in the key of C major. Lastly, a brief codetta arising out this last melodic idea returns the music to A-flat major and closes with a half cadence. Immediately, two variations follow – the first, embellishing the opening melody with sixteenth notes, and the second with thirty-seconds. The remainder of the movement, with the utmost dignity, develops the previous material in freer manner, and concerns itself more with the first melodic idea of theme. However, the middle idea returns towards the conclusion to create a very touching moment of immense beauty.
Leaving behind the Andante, the listener is teleported into the mysterious world of the Scherzo. Quietly the music begins, with the Scherzo’s theme announced by only the cellos and basses – a theme, which incidentally, resembles that of the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 4. Twice this theme is given, the second time somewhat extended, and each time closes with a fermata on the dominant. But, then, the music erupts into a terrifying forte with the horns resurrecting the fateful four-note motif of the first movement. The Trio section is also led by the cellos and basses which now rumble with tremendous thunderings. Their theme is taken up in turn by the violas and then the violins in a brief fugato, which appears multiple times during the course of the Trio.
With the return of the Scherzo, the listener enters into an even greater realm of mystery. As if a sudden mist has fallen to obscure everything it encompasses, Beethoven reimagines the reprise with the most striking orchestration. Everything now is hushed. The notes of the principal theme are now rendered with a crisp staccato, and the bombastic motif of the first movement with delicate pizzicato. Out of this motif, a new melody arises in the first violins and leads into one of the most original passages in all of Beethoven’s music. The basses, even quieter now, begin a long-held A-flat beneath a pedal C in the violins. The timpani enter and begin to give the rhythm of the four-note motif. A brief echo of the Scherzo’s theme is heard in the violins, but the music then becomes fixated on its concluding three notes. The melody arches higher and higher, carrying the listener towards some unknown summit. With the entrance of the winds and tremolandi in the strings, the music swells and bursts into the glorious C major Finale.
Like brilliant sunlight, the shadowy mists fall away as the triumphant theme of the Finale is given by the full orchestra, reinforced now with all the noise of the piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones. Three more melodies follow, each as rapturous as the last. The first is given to the horns and again recalls a theme of Mozart’s – in this case, from the Andante of his Jupiter Symphony; the second, is a triplet figure that is featured prominently in the development; and lastly, the second theme proper in G major. The development section which follows the expositions is a boisterous affair, culminating with a tremendous fortissimo from the entire orchestra on the dominant. From thence, the listener suddenly is plunged back into the mysterious world of the Scherzo. It is one of the most novel moments ever devised in music. Even Spohr, who described the rest of the finale as “empty babel,” heaped high praise upon this remarkable episode. The first violins take up the theme of the Scherzo against pizzicati in the remaining strings. However, soon the oboe steps in to take up the melodic role. As the winds, led by the oboe, traverse the tones of the leading tone seventh, the music suddenly leaps upward, with even greater energy than it had before, into the triumphant first theme of the Finale and, thus, into the recapitulation. Little is changed until the coda is reached, where all but the triplet melody makes its appearance. The tempo is gradually quickened to a Presto, at which point the second theme jubilantly presages a final statement of the first. All possible noise is made in the closing measures, all over a tonic chord, as Beethoven gives one last vehement declaration of his triumph.
Perhaps no other orchestral composition has had as many anecdotes told of it as the C minor Symphony. Berlioz relates in his Mémoirs of Lesueur’s (one of his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire) first hearing of the work. Lesueur had carefully avoided Beethoven’s music despite Berlioz’s enthusiasm for it, but eventually consented to attending a performance of the Fifth Symphony. After the performance, Berlioz hastened to his teacher and found him entirely overwhelmed, to the point that he blew past his student in an effort to reach open air. Berlioz thought he had succeeded in winning over his teacher, but when he returned to him the next morning, Lesueur was as cold towards Beethoven’s music as before. Berlioz eventually coaxed Lesueur into repeating his praises from the previous night. Quickly, however, Lesueur shook his head and said, “All the same, such music as thought out not to be made.” It is not difficult to feel some agreement with Berlioz’s reply: “All right, dear master, there’s no fear of much being made like it.” At another performance at the Paris Conservatoire, the famous opera singer, Maria Malibran, was supposedly thrown into convulsions, when she heard the Fifth Symphony. In a story told by Schumann, the composer attended a performance of the Symphony and was seated next to young boy. During the suspenseful passage between Scherzo and Finale, the boy suddenly clutched Schumann’s arm. Schumann asked what was the matter. The boy replied, “I am afraid.” Joseph DuBose
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