Beethoven’s first minor-key symphony was initially sketched in 1804, completed in 1808, and had its first performance at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on December 22nd of that year. This event was a mammoth all-Beethoven concert that also included his 6th Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from his Mass in C and concluded with the Opus 80 Choral Fantasia. Apart from its extreme length, this concert was notable for a misunderstanding concerning repeats in the wind parts in the Choral Fantasia, which caused the performance to break down in chaos. The temperature in the theatre was freezing too. The budget for the concert, which did not stretch to adequate rehearsal time, also did not allow for any heating in the auditorium, causing the audience to suffer the extreme cold of the Viennese winter.
The symphony was dedicated jointly to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumowsky, despite the fact that Beethoven had agreed to sell it to Count Franz von Oppersdorff for the sum of 500 florins. However, after collecting the first 350, Beethoven changed his mind, and dedicated it to these two long-standing aristocratic supporters instead. Count Oppersdorff was handed a specially written symphony (the Fourth) as compensation, for which Beethoven broke off work on the Fifth during the summer and autumn of 1806.
Not surprisingly, given the nature of its first performance, the symphony was not an instant success. However, by 1813 the critic E.T.A Hoffman was praising it as “indescribably profound, magnificent” and the very epitome of the work of the man he considered to be Europe’s greatest composer. This opinion was to be shared by many other commentators in the nineteenth century, thus establishing its enduring reputation as one of the greatest works in the history of Western music.
Beethoven had a habit of working on several compositions at once, which often led to an overlap in material. For example, the motto of the 5th Symphony is rhythmically similar to the opening of the 4th Piano Concerto, and the idea for the transition to the finale was first used in the previously written 6th Symphony. Similarities also exist with the 4th Symphony, not the least of which is the use of falling thirds in the otherwise very different openings of the two works.
And what of these falling thirds in the 5th Symphony, the most famous opening phrase in the whole of classical music? Do they represent, as Anton Schindler claimed, fate knocking at the door? Or are they the song of a yellowhammer heard in the Prater-park in Vienna, as Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny reported? More recently, Arnold Schmitz has suggested that they might be derived from the rhythms of Luigi Cherubini’s Hymne au Panthéon of 1794. Cherubini was Beethoven’s favourite contemporary composer, and it is likely that he knew and respected this work, so this explanation seems as likely as either of the other two.
In any event, and quite apart from any extra-musical considerations, the statement of this motto sets the scene for the symphony in an intensely dramatic way. Its rhythm and melody permeate virtually the entire piece, producing a work of great power with a brilliantly executed thematic unity.
First movement – Allegro con brio
This is a “sonata principle” movement, comprising a repeated exposition, development, recapitulation and finally a coda. Although it is inaudible in performance, it is worth noting that this movement is constructed according to the ratio of the Golden Section (that is, 8:13), in which the length of the repeated exposition bears the same relationship to the rest of the movement as the rest does to the whole.
The motto, played fortissimo in octaves by the strings, provides a forceful and foreboding opening to the symphony. This first subject is then expanded and developed, restated and developed again before a modulation to the relative major key, at the exact middle of the exposition.
At this point, a horn call – an expanded version of the motto – introduces the second subject, first heard in the 1st violins. This second subject is itself an inversion of the horn phrase, thus cleverly lending unity to the material. Beethoven builds up the tension until the motto returns, leading to a relaxed and triumphant-sounding passage, which presages the return of the motto, before the section is repeated.
The development section starts with another flourish from the horns, leading into the key of the subdominant (F minor). The first theme is then replayed and developed until, again at the halfway point, the horn call is played twice. There now follows an extraordinary passage in which minim chords are passed between the strings and wind, all the time widening in pitch distance and ending with a quiet, eerie and unsettling repetition of the same chords. This is followed by the fortissimo return of the motto, harmonised for the first time in the movement and combined with the horn call in a violent outburst of ferocious energy.
The recapitulation now follows, in which Beethoven emphasises the pathetic aspects of the material. This is most notable in the plaintive oboe cadenza, which offers a brief respite before the music drives on again. At the exact middle of this section, the horn theme is played once more. The second subject is then recapitulated, until a thundering passage of great rhythmic intensity is halted by a surprise inversion of the motto theme played by the bassoons, clarinets and horns. The rest of the orchestra replies with a storm of sound that leads in turn via another fusion of the motto and horn calls to an extended and emphatic final cadence that brings this tumultuous movement to a halt.
After this emotionally draining experience a brief rest might be expected, but instead Beethoven provides a brooding and unsettled slow movement that relieves the tension only intermittently.
Second movement – Andante con moto
This is a set of orchestral variations based on two separate themes, which are presented one after another in the same key (Ab major) at the very start of the movement.
The movement opens with the elegant first theme, played initially by the lower strings. The woodwind join in for the beautifully poised second part, and this segment is taken up and elaborated by the violins. Clarinets and bassoons begin the second theme, accompanied by triplet figures in the violas. This theme is passed to the violins, who linger on it before a key change to C major, when the theme is played fortissimo by the brass and timpani. This triumphant music serves as a foretaste of what is to come in the final movement, although for now the triumph is brief.
The violins re-enter with their hesitant phrase, followed by a link comprising a mysterious sequence of harmonies, leading back to Ab and the first variations on the opening themes. These are followed by the link passage again, leading to the second variation on the first theme, which includes a beautifully flowing passage for woodwind. Next, a crescendo introduces the return of the second theme, again in C major, followed by more variations on the two themes. Just as the movement seems to be coming to an end with a restatement of the first theme in the tonic key, the pace quickens and the bassoon plays an almost operatic melody, followed by delicate string figures that are punctuated by the oboe. The music ends as calmly as it began, although the final chords have a typically Beethovian muscularity.
Third movement – Allegro
This is a scherzo and trio in the key of C minor, most usually performed scherzo-trio-scherzo (ABA), and this is how it will be played tonight. In the earliest performances of the symphony, the movement was structured ABABA, but a copyist’s mistake led to the repeat being omitted, and it has been played in its shortened form ever since. Some orchestras have recently restored the movement to its original length.
The scherzo is introduced with darkly flowing arpeggios from the double basses, with a response from the upper strings and wind. This phrase glides to a halt, restarts, then pauses once again. Instantly, the horns begin hammering out a simplified version of the motto rhythm from the opening movement, with thrilling effect. The full orchestra joins in, but the music dwindles, to be replaced by the opening music in a new key.
Beethoven steers the music back to the tonic, and the horn theme returns. This fades away, to be replaced again by the opening arpeggios. This time, the answer is developed, propelled forwards by reminders of the horn theme and the introduction of quavers to the 1st violin part. A quick and loud restatement of the horn theme fades quietly away, leading to the start of the trio, again introduced by the double basses.
This trio begins with a short fugue in C major, which is repeated before the material is developed in the second section. Here the music flows, builds and declines in repeated successions. The last time this happens, the basses begin the opening of the movement again and so the scherzo is recapitulated, this time much less forcefully by the wind, and with a very understated accompaniment from the strings.
The music then stops, apart from the quiet yet insistent tapping of a drum. We are in the transition to the finale, one of the most eerie and unsettling passages of music ever written. Slowly, the sound builds as the violins tentatively grope their way forwards to an as yet unknown destination. More instruments join in and the mood lifts little by little, until with a tremendous burst of energy the full orchestra begins the triumphant final allegro.
Fourth movement – Allegro
This is another sonata principle movement, in the key of C major. Here Beethoven adds trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon, thus adding to the music’s militaristic splendour. After a while the brass and percussion cease, leaving the rest of the orchestra playing a sprightly passage of descending quavers before the horns re-enter to play yet another unforgettable theme. The strings carry the movement forwards, and when they arrive at the key of the dominant (G major) they begin a theme in triplets that is derived from the previous descending quaver passage. After a series of vigorous scales, the clarinets introduce another theme derived from the descending quavers, but with much longer note-values and very much quieter. The sound builds to a spirited cadence that signals the repeat of the exposition.
The development section that follows concentrates on the triplet theme, with the bass line becoming increasingly prominent. As the music increases in intensity, this bass part bursts out of the shadows in a stunning passage that brings the trombones briefly to the fore. A fantastic climax is built up, with subtle reminders of the first movement horn theme a constant presence. The music reaches a peak of breathtaking intensity before being stopped dead in its tracks.
Beethoven now pulls off one of the most audacious stunts in the symphonic repertoire, by re-introducing the horn theme from the third movement, but in a form so subdued as to seem almost a ghost of its first magnificent appearance.
This ravishing interlude is brief, and the music now returns to the opening material in the recapitulation. The bassoons and horns introduce the coda, which features some brilliant piccolo figures. Also present are alternating string and wind chords, as in the opening movement, but here with an entirely different effect. The music, now firmly grounded in C major, goes faster and faster as it hurtles towards the finale. It surges forwards, stops and surges again, until the extended cadence that brings this monumental work to its final glorious conclusion.