The Making of an Icon: Symphony No. 5

Art is most known for its iconic images. There are many in fine art:

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa
Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night

In sculpture too.

Michelangelo, David
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

But there are also iconic images from film:

North by Northwest

The performing arts too are notable for many iconic moments:

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1: To be or not to be

Music too has its icons and the greatest of these–the one that has endured for more than 200 years, recognized across every corner of the globe–is unquestionable the opening salvo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. However you interpret that truly iconic four note motif–many consider it to be “fate knocking at the door”, but the Allies in WWII used it as a symbol of victory–there is no escaping from it. If alien life ever finds Voyager and can play its Golden Record, they too will hear the famous first movement, billions of miles from the source of its creation. Overplayed, overexposed, omnipresent. It is the Mona Lisa of music.

Beethoven began composing his Fifth Symphony in 1804, which explains why the famous “fate chords” were first heard in his Appassionata Sonata, as discussed previously. In fact, Beethoven was working on several compositions at once during this period, which included not only the Appassionata, but also his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies (the Sixth would be premiered along with the Fifth on the same night), the Violin Concerto, the Mass in C, and his lone opera, Fidelio.

In many respects, the Fifth Symphony is a purely Classical composition. It’s structure is as follows:

1st Movement:

  • Exposition:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Development
  • Recapitulation:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Coda

2nd Movement:

  • Theme A
  • Theme B
  • Variation 1 (A)
  • Variation 1 (B)
  • Variation 2 (A)
  • Variation 3 (A)
  • Variation 2 (B)
  • Variation 4 (A)
  • Variation 5 (A)
  • Variation 6 (A)
  • Coda

Third Movement:

  • Scherzo
  • Trio
  • Trio A
  • Trio B
  • Scherzo Return
  • Transition to last movement

Fourth Movement:

  • Exposition:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Theme 3
  • Theme 4
  • Development
  • Recapitulation:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Theme 3
  • Theme 4
  • Coda

Other than the extended transitions and codas, nothing about the structure of the work is particularly revolutionary. Beethoven, as ever, seems loathe to tear down the architecture of music, choosing instead to build his new world from the inside out.

But the Fifth Symphony is revolutionary. But its not for reasons that are immediately apparent. Yes, the tone is dark, but Mozart got there first, in his Jupiter Symphony, his Requiem, and parts of Don Giovanni. And the idea of a four note motif was also hardly new–Haydn in particular was fond of using them to conclude a musical phrase. What was new was that Beethoven nearly dispenses with melody in the first movement entirely, obsessively chasing that four note motif so much so that nearly all of the music in that movement is derived from it. The four note motif is a unifying thread that connects every movement in the symphony–something no one had done before, rhythmically unify an entire symphony.

Beethoven’s concept of a symphony as a unitary work really takes flight here: In additon to the omnipresent rhythmic device of the four note motif, Beethoven takes us on a musical journey that stretches across the entire work where the main idea doesn’t emerge until the finale. Themes from earlier movements return later on, and, combined with these other unifying elements, allow Beethoven to knit the entire symphony together as a unified whole. Unlike every symphony written previously, the Fifth builds to a conclusion, not the other way around. Others would seize and expand on this concept of “motivic development”, one of the main features of Romantic Period music, making Beethoven’s Fifth a landmark in music history like none other.

Let’s start at the top, with that famous four note motif. While it is tempting to call it a four note motif, it is, like the four note motif of the Violin Concerto, really five beats as the symphony opens with a quarter note rest.

As noted earlier, rests are vitally important in Beethoven. No composer is better at depicting emotion in music and the silences are vitally important to a performers ability to serve as the medium between Beethoven and the audience. Indeed, it is these silences that make the opening so dramatic. But what else makes this four note motif, repeated twice, so iconic? Likely a comnbination of things. First is the rhythm. Beethoven opens his Violin Concerto with another four note motif–but this one is rhythmically superior. Then there is the silence between the repeated motifs. And it is those silences that are the strongest clue to what Beethoven is doing here. We know from the title that the symphony is in the key of C Minor–thus, as good Classicists, we expect to hear a C Minor tonic chord at the start. And Beethoven obliges, sort of. The four note motif creates ambiguity, since it can resolve in E-Flat Major, just as naturally as it actually does in C Minor. And that potential subversion of expectation, by allowing the audience to question which way the music will go, creates a profound sense of drama (even if those hearing the music are unaware of these finer points of music theory). Classicism was all about taking the audience from point A to point B in an expected way. Beethoven, right at the jump, is subverting that, teasing the audience. He’s not breaking any of the rules; he’s just finding loopholes to exploit.

And that ambiguous opening salvo signals that the real revolution in this symphony is going to be harmonic. Beethoven’s journey will, for the first time in music, stretch across four movements, taking the audience from the bleakness of C Minor to the sunshine of the C Major.

Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.

Ludwig van Beethoven

In many respects, Mozart got there first again by opening works in a minor key and ending in a major key. But, unlike in Mozart, the keys of the Fifth Symphony are related and present in all four movements, yet another example of Beethoven creating unity throughout his entire composition. In the first movement, Beethoven modulates from the opening C Minor to the relative E-Flat Major, which was common enough, before moving to F Minor (a wholly unrelated key!) to open the development section. This discordant transition is shocking, even if you now expect it after so many listenings. There is no easy modulation to get there–Beethoven just does it, with horns blaring. It’s as if he’s daring you to question his compositional choice.

The dark development moves from F Minor to C Minor to G Minor before finding its way back to C Minor. I might have missed a step or two there, but you get the idea–the music is inevitably pulled back to the darkness of C Minor. When we get to the recapitulation section, Beethoven pulls a neat trick. Our ears are now fully attuned to C Minor and, because this is sonata form, we expect to go back to C MInor. And that is exactly what Beethoven hints at–it sounds like we are staying in C Minor. But with a wave of his quill (was there ever a composer so skilled at modulation as Beethoven?) we are all of a sudden in C Major heading straight on to an expected conclusion. But this is where Beethoven’s famous coda–hilariously lampooned by PDQ Bach–kicks in, sending us back to C Minor and the darkness therein.

The first movement is also notable in that Beethoven singles out his four note motif–fundamentally a rhythmic device–as the central idea of the movement, displacing melody. Indeed, the four note motif is played in virtually every bar. Beethoven’s primary reliance on rhythm creates drama and excitement in the development section, as the motif is passed around the orchestra like a baton. The motif will reappear in succeeding movements and underpins the entire symphony. Taking his idea of pure music one step further, Beethoven is unifying the entire symphony, harmonically and rhythmically.

The second movement is, more or less, a standard theme and variation structure, albeit with some extended transitions, as seen in the first movement. Harmonically, Beethoven continues the overall idea of the symphony, the triumph of C Major. The movement opens in A-Flat Major, which modulates at times, beginning in the first transition, to C Major. To underscore the importance of his modulation to C Major, Beethoven brings back the same opening rhthym (three fast notes, one held note) here. Incidentally, you can tell when the music is in C Major because these are the only sections where the timpani (tuned to C and G for the first movement) can be heard. But, just as in the first movement, C Major is fighting a losing battle. The A theme returns in A-Flat Minor (listen for the march like staccato towards the end), the darkest and bleakest of keys, before returning, permanently to A-Flat Major.

The third movement opens with a C Minor arpeggio bristling with anticipation–and Beethoven rewards our leaning into the music with the entry of the brass, followed by the violins. Note that, once again, it is a four note motif–short, short, short, long–further evidence of Beethoven’s rhythmic unification of the entire symphony. Once you start listening for the motif, it is everywhere, in every section. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the cellos lead the orchestra to jubillent C Major in the first part of the trio. But C Major cannot survive and the movement concludes in C Minor again, ever more softly and disappearing into fragments.

But Beethoven, as always, is about showing light through the darkeness. Even in the dark days where Beethoven felt trapped between reactionary monarchs in Vienna fighting for survival against the French imperial troops, Beethoven’s music is full of hope. As the third movement appears to melt away into nothingness, the lower strings play an A-Flat Major chord, which Beethoven will use both to transition to the finale without break and modulate to a new key. The timpani sounds the four note motif and the final movement opens in joyous C Major, with trombones and piccolos used for the first time together in a symphony, from which there is no retreat. Other than a second theme in G Major, the dominant and consistent key, right to the end is C Major, triumphant after all. Listen for the four note motif–it reappears again, but in a lighter and more jubillent sound, propelling the music forward to its inescapable conclusion (listen, for example, for how the motif returns in the coda). The Allies were right after all: This–the glorious finale–is the feeling of victory expressed in sound.

Here, in the finale, we finally get the main idea of the symphony–it is what everything else has been building to. The triumph of C Major is the victory of light over dark . . . but is there something else, a deeper and more meaningful message buried in the music? As I noted early on in this blog, the finale is comprised entirely of I-IV-V chords, which are the tonic (C Major), the subdominant (F Major) and the dominant (G Major). And therein lies the message. In the darkest days for European progressives, as France (and increasingly much of Europe) had succumbed to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions, Beethoven literally paints the finale in the red, blue and white of the French Republican flag. In these dark days, Beethoven is drawing inspiration from revolutionary France and its ideals of Libertéégalitéfraternité–composing a hymn to liberty that is both nostalgic and aspirational. Here’s a snapshot of the score with those three chords colored in (courtesy of the BBC and Howard Goodall):

Dismiss the Fifth at your peril. Bruckner and Dvorak each composed C Minor symphonies that closely reflect Beethoven’s harmonics. Mahler (in his Fifth) and Tchaikovsky (in his Fourth) both imitate Beethoven’s darkness to light theme. And, of course, dear Brahms’ First Symphony is so utterly derivative of Beethoven’s Fifth that it was commonly referred to as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” It is the most quoted and the most performed work of “classical” music. Iconic. Revolutionary. And utterly, inescapably, brilliant.

As for the recording, there can only be one. Search any list of the greatest recordings of alltime and you will inevitably find the Vienna Philharmonic’s 1974 performance under the baton of Carlos Kleiber at or near the very top of that list. An iconic recording if there ever was one.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67:

Well, sort of. I grew up with the Kleiber recording, which I eventually wore out to the point that it wouldn’t play anymore. And while I think it still holds up, the last movement in particular seems almost painfully slow. Music historians and period instrument performers have steadily moved Beethoven away from an overly Romantic ethic back to Classicism. In part, that means taking Beethoven at the pace he indicates in the score.

I love the Kleiber recording–you can feel the weight of those opening chords. And Vienna, characterically, is very sensitive to the rhythmic developments in the music. But I find his pacing far to slow and the coloration still too much on the Romantic scale. As he has with so many works, John Eliot Gardner stripped away the Romantic kitsch to great effect–playing Beethoven qua Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67:

Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony at a now legendary concert on December 22, 1808. All of the music was entirely new, all premiering that night. The concert opened with the the Sixth Symphony (although whoever did the program notes that night mislabeled it as the Fifth and the Fifth as the Sixth). Then an intermezzo of sorts comprised of a concert aria and a section of the Mass in C. This was followed by the entirety of the Fourth Piano Concerto, with Beethoven at the piano. And then, after nearly two hours of brand new Beethoven . . . intermission! The second half of the concert was no less epic, feature more selections from the Mass in C, the Chorale Fantasy, a solo improvisation by Beethoven at the piano, and, of course the Fifth Symphony. Total running time? Four hours, give or take.

Even though the performance was reportedly a bit of a mess–characteristically, Beethoven had rehearsed only once with the orchestra–this is among those nights in music history I’d most like to have been present. What must it have been like to hear the most famous eight notes played for the first time in public? Well, to tell the truth, it didn’t send everyone into rapture as you might have expected. The concert received cool reviews and the Fifth was deemed a failure until the publication of a review by the critic E.T.A. Hoffmann, over a year later:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It is the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infi nite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .

Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!

Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit.

Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

What instrumental work by Beethoven confi rms this all to a higher degree than the profound Symphony in C Minor, a work that is splendid beyond all measure. How irresistibly does this wonderful composition transport the listener through ever growing climaxes into the spiritual realm of the infinite.

Nothing could be simpler than the two-measure main idea of the first Allegro, which, in unison at first, does not even define the key for the listener. The character of apprehensive, restless longing contained in this movement is made even plainer by the melodious subsidiary theme. The breast that is oppressed and alarmed by intimations of things monstrous, destructive, and threatening wheezes for air with wrenching gasps, but just then a friendly, luminous figure appears and brings light into the dark night (the lovely theme in G major that earlier had been intimated by the horn in Eb major). How simple is this theme—let that be said again—that the master places as the basis of the whole, but how wonderfully does he derive all the subsidiary and transitional passages from it through rhythmic interrelationships, such that these passages serve little by little to unfold the character of the Allegro, which its main theme only hints at. All these passages are short—almost all consist only of two or three measures—and these are constantly divided among the wind and string instruments. We might think that from such elements only something fragmented or incomprehensible could arise, but instead we receive from them a sense of the whole. So too the constant repetition of passages and single chords, one after the other, which increases the feeling of an unnamable longing that reaches to the highest degree. . . .

The inner structure of the movements, their working out, instrumentation, the way they are linked together—everything works toward a single point. But it is especially the inner interrelation among the main themes which produces that unity that alone allows the listener to achieve one single mood. Often this interrelationship becomes clear to the listener if he hears the connection of two movements, or if he discovers in different movements some common bass figure. But a deeper relationship that goes beyond such observations speaks often solely from one mind to another, and it is just this that exists in the two Allegros and the minuet and which splendidly proclaims the self-possessed genius of this master. . . .

E.T.A. Hoffmann

And that did it. Demand for performances skyrocketed and classical music has never been the same since.

In World War II, in the West, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony became a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany. In Morse code, the letter V is broadcasted as (dot-dot-dot-dash). In Roman numerals, 5 is V. And on Jully 19, 1941, Winston Churchill proclaimed: “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny.” From then on until the end of the war, the BBC began its broadcasts with Morse code for V. A French song, which was composed based on Beethoven’s Fifth, sought to prepare the nation for liberation. And a poem began circulating across the continent:

In ne faut pas desesperer on les aura.
N’oublier pas la letter V
Ecrivez las chantonnez la VVVV
Sur les murs et sur les pave faites des V

Inspired by French liberty, Beethoven had come full circle at last.

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