Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 was written in 1804–08. This symphony is one of the most popular and well-known compositions in all of European classical music, and one of the most often-played symphonies. It comprises four movements: an opening sonata allegro, an andante, and a fast scherzo which leads attacca to the finale. First performed in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1808, the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterwards. E.T.A. Hoffmann described the symphony as "one of the most important works of the time".
It begins by stating a distinctive four-note "short-short-short-long" motif twice: ()
The symphony, and the four-note opening motif in particular, are well known worldwide, with the motif appearing frequently in popular culture, from disco to rock and roll, to appearances in film and television. During World War II, the BBC used the four-note motif to introduce its radio news broadcasts because it evoked the Morse code letter "V" (· · · —, "victory").
The Fifth Symphony is notable for the amount of time it spent in gestation. The first sketches date from 1804, following the completion of the Third Symphony. However, Beethoven repeatedly interrupted his work on the Fifth to prepare other compositions, including the first version of Fidelio, the Appassionata piano sonata, the three Razumovsky string quartets, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth Symphony. The final preparation of the Fifth Symphony, which took place in 1807–1808, was carried out in parallel with the Sixth Symphony, which premiered at the same concert.
Beethoven was in his mid-thirties during this time; his personal life was troubled by increasing deafness. In the world at large, the period was marked by the Napoleonic Wars, political turmoil in Austria, and the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon's troops in 1805.
The Fifth Symphony was premiered on December 22, 1808 at a mammoth concert at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna consisting entirely of Beethoven premieres, and directed by Beethoven himself. The performance took more than four hours. The two symphonies appeared on the program named in the reverse of the order by which we know them today: the Fifth was numbered No. 6, and the Sixth appeared as No. 5. The program was as follows:
There was little critical response to the premiere performance, which took place under adverse conditions. The orchestra did not play well—with only one rehearsal before the concert—and at one point, following a mistake by one of the performers in the Choral Fantasy, Beethoven had to stop the music and start again. The auditorium was extremely cold and the audience was exhausted by the length of the program. However, a year and a half later, another performance resulted in a rapturous review by E.T.A. Hoffmann in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. He described the music with dramatic imagery:
Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.
The symphony soon acquired its status as a central item in the repertoire. As an emblem of classical music, as it were, the Fifth was played in the inaugural concerts of the New York Philharmonic on December 7, 1842, and the National Symphony Orchestra on November 2, 1931. Groundbreaking both in terms of its technical and emotional impact, the Fifth has had a large influence on composers and music critics, and inspired work by such composers as Brahms, Tchaikovsky (his 4th Symphony in particular), Bruckner, Mahler, and Hector Berlioz. The Fifth stands with the Third Symphony and Ninth Symphony as the most revolutionary of Beethoven's compositions.
The symphony is scored for piccolo (fourth movement only), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and C, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon (fourth movement only), 2 horns in E flat and C, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor, and bass, fourth movement only), timpani (in G-C) and strings.
The work is in four movements:
The first movement opens with the four-note motif discussed above, one of the most famous in western music. There is considerable debate among conductors as to the manner of playing the four opening bars. Some conductors take it in strict allegro tempo; others take the liberty of a weighty treatment, playing the motif in a much slower and more stately tempo; yet others take the motif molto ritardando (a pronounced slowing through each four-note phrase), arguing that the fermata over the fourth note justifies this.
The first movement is in the traditional sonata form that Beethoven inherited from his classical predecessors, Haydn and Mozart (in which the main ideas that are introduced in the first few pages undergo elaborate development through many keys, with a dramatic return to the opening section—the recapitulation—about three-quarters of the way through). It starts out with two dramatic fortissimo phrases, the famous motif, commanding the listener's attention. Following the first four bars, Beethoven uses imitations and sequences to expand the theme, these pithy imitations tumbling over each other with such rhythmic regularity that they appear to form a single, flowing melody. Shortly after, a very short fortissimo bridge, played by the horns, takes place before a second theme is introduced. This second theme is in E flat major, the relative major, and it is more lyrical, written piano and featuring the four-note motif in the string accompaniment. The codetta is again based on the four-note motif. The development section follows, using modulation, sequences and imitation, and including the bridge. During the recapitulation, there is a brief solo passage for oboe in quasi-improvisatory style, and the movement ends with a massive coda.
The second movement, in A flat major, is a lyrical work in double variation form, which means that two themes are presented and varied in alternation. Following the variations there is a long coda.
The movement opens with an announcement of its theme, a melody in unison by violas and cellos, with accompaniment by the double basses. A second theme soon follows, with a harmony provided by clarinets, bassoons, violins, with a triplet arpeggio in the violas and bass. A variation of the first theme reasserts itself. This is followed up by a third theme, thirty-second notes in the violas and cellos with a counterphrase running in the flute, oboe and bassoon. Following an interlude, the whole orchestra participates in a fortissimo, leading to a series of crescendos, and a coda to close the movement.
The third movement is in ternary form, consisting of a scherzo and trio. It follows the traditional mold of Classical-era symphonic third movements, containing in sequence the main scherzo, a contrasting trio section, a return of the scherzo, and a coda. (For further discussion of this form, see "Textual questions", below.)
The movement returns to the opening key of C minor and begins with the following theme, played by the cellos and double basses: ()
The 19th century musicologist Gustav Nottebohm first pointed out that this theme has the same sequence of pitches (though in a different key and range) as the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's famous Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. Here is Mozart's theme: ()
(The derivation emerges more clearly if one listens first to Mozart's theme, then Mozart's theme transposed to Beethoven's key and range, then Beethoven's theme, thus: .)
While such resemblances sometimes occur by accident, this is unlikely to be so in the present case. Nottebohm discovered the resemblance when he examined a sketchbook used by Beethoven in composing the Fifth Symphony: here, 29 measures of Mozart's finale appear, copied out by Beethoven.
The opening theme is answered by a contrasting theme played by the winds, and this sequence is repeated. Then the horns loudly announce the main theme of the movement, and the music proceeds from there.
"The scherzo offers contrasts that are somewhat similar to those of the slow movement in that they derive from extreme difference in character between scherzo and trio ... The Scherzo then contrasts this figure with the famous 'motto' (3 + 1) from the first movement, which gradually takes command of the whole movement."
The triumphant and exhilarating finale begins without interruption after the scherzo. It is written in an unusual variant of sonata form: at the end of the development section, the music halts on a dominant cadence, played fortissimo, and the music continues after a pause with a quiet reprise of the "horn theme" of the scherzo movement. The recapitulation is then introduced by a crescendo coming out of the last bars of the interpolated scherzo section, just as the same music was introduced at the opening of the movement. The interruption of the finale with material from the scherzo was pioneered by Haydn, who had done the same in his Symphony No. 46 in B, from 1772. It is not known whether Beethoven was familiar with this work.
The Fifth Symphony finale includes a very long coda, in which the main themes of the movement are played in temporally compressed form. Towards the end the tempo is increased to presto. The symphony ends with 29 bars of C major chords, played fortissimo. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style suggests that this ending reflects Beethoven's sense of Classical proportions: the "unbelievably long" pure C major cadence is needed "to ground the extreme tension of [this] immense work."
A great deal has been written about the Fifth Symphony in books, scholarly articles, and program notes for live and recorded performances. This section summarizes some themes that commonly appear in this material.
The initial motif of the symphony has sometimes been credited with symbolic significance as a representation of Fate knocking at the door. This idea comes from Beethoven's secretary and factotum Anton Schindler, who wrote, many years after Beethoven's death:
The composer himself provided the key to these depths when one day, in this author's presence, he pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work: "Thus Fate knocks at the door!
Schindler's testimony concerning any point of Beethoven's life is disparaged by experts (he is believed to have forged entries in Beethoven's conversation books). Moreover, it is often commented that Schindler offered a highly romanticized view of the composer. Thus, although we cannot know whether Schindler actually fabricated this quotation, it seems a strong possibility.
There is another tale concerning the same motif; the version given here is from Antony Hopkins's description of the symphony. Karl Czerny (Beethoven's pupil, who premiered the "Emperor" Concerto) claimed that "the little pattern of notes had come to [Beethoven] from a yellow-hammer's song, heard as he walked in the Prater-park in Vienna." Hopkins further remarks that "given the choice between a yellow-hammer and Fate-at-the-door the public has preferred the more dramatic myth, though Czerny's account is too unlikely to have been invented."
Evaluations of these interpretations tend to be skeptical. "The popular legend that Beethoven intended this grand exordium of the symphony to suggest 'Fate Knocking at the gate' is apocryphal; Beethoven's pupil, Ferdinand Ries, was really author of this would-be poetic exegesis, which Beethoven received very sarcastically when Ries imparted it to him." Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner remarks that "Beethoven had been known to say nearly anything to relieve himself of questioning pests"; this might be taken to impugn both tales.
The key of the Fifth Symphony, C minor, is commonly regarded as a special key for Beethoven, specifically a "stormy, heroic tonality". Beethoven wrote a number of works in C minor whose character is broadly similar to that of the Fifth Symphony. Writer Charles Rosen says, "Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extroverted form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise".
It is commonly asserted that the opening four-note rhythmic motif (short-short-short-long; see above) is repeated throughout the symphony, unifying it. According to Web, "it is a rhythmic pattern (dit-dit-dit-dot*) that makes its appearance in each of the other three movements and thus contributes to the overall unity of the symphony" (Doug Briscoe, ); "a single motif that unifies the entire work" (Peter Gutmann, ); "the key motif of the entire symphony" () ; "the rhythm of the famous opening figure ... recurs at crucial points in later movements" (Richard Bratby, ). The New Grove encyclopedia cautiously endorses this view, reporting that "[t]he famous opening motif is to be heard in almost every bar of the first movement – and, allowing for modifications, in the other movements.
There are several passages in the symphony that have led to this view. The one most commonly noted occurs in the third movement, where the horns play the following solo in which the short-short-short-long pattern occurs repeatedly:
In the second movement, an accompanying line plays a similar rhythm ():
In the finale, Doug Briscoe (cited above) suggests that the motif may be heard in the piccolo part, presumably meaning the following passage ():
Later, in the coda of the finale, the bass instruments repeatedly play the following ()::
On the other hand, there are commentators who are unimpressed with these resemblances and consider them to be accidental. Antony Hopkins, discussing the theme in the scherzo, says "no musician with an ounce of feeling could confuse [the two rhythms]", explaining that the scherzo rhythm begins on a strong musical beat whereas the first-movement theme begins on a weak one. Donald Francis Tovey pours scorn on the idea that a rhythmic motif unifies the symphony: "This profound discovery was supposed to reveal an unsuspected unity in the work, but it does not seem to have been carried far enough." Applied consistently, he continues, the same approach would lead to the conclusion that many other works by Beethoven are also "unified" with this symphony, as the motif appears in the "Appassionata" piano sonata, the Fourth Piano Concerto (), and in the String Quartet, Op. 74. Tovey concludes, "the simple truth is that Beethoven could not do without just such purely rhythmic figures at this stage of his art."
To Tovey's objection can be added the prominence of the short-short-short-long rhythmic figure in earlier works by Beethoven's older Classical contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. To give just two examples, it is found in Haydn's "Miracle" Symphony, No. 96) (() and in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, K. 503 ((). Such examples show that "short-short-short-long" rhythms were a regular part of the musical language of the composers of Beethoven's day.
It seems likely that whether or not Beethoven deliberately, or unconsciously, wove a single rhythmic motif through the Fifth Symphony will (in Hopkins's words) "remain eternally open to debate."
While it is commonly stated that the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth is the first time the trombone and the piccolo were used in a concert symphony, it is not true. The Swedish composer Joachim Nicholas Eggert specified trombones for his Symphony in E-flat major written in 1807, and examples of earlier symphonies with a part for piccolo abound, including Michael Haydn's Symphony no. 19 in C major composed in August 1773.
In the autograph score (that is, the original version from Beethoven's hand), the third movement contains a repeat mark: when the scherzo and trio sections have both been played through, the performers are directed to return to the very beginning and play these two sections again. Then comes a third rendering of the scherzo, this time notated differently for pizzicato strings and transitioning directly to the finale (see description above). Most modern printed editions of the score do not render this repeat mark; and indeed most performances of the symphony render the movement as ABA' (where A = scherzo, B = trio, and A' = modified scherzo), in contrast to the ABABA' of the autograph score.
The repeat mark in the autograph is unlikely to be simply an error on the composer's part. The ABABA' scheme for scherzi appears elsewhere in Beethoven, in the Bagatelle for solo piano, Op. 33, No. 7 (1802), and in the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies. However, it is possible that for the Fifth Symphony Beethoven originally preferred ABABA', but changed his mind in the course of publication in favor of ABA'.
Since Beethoven's day, published editions of the symphony have always printed ABA'. However, in 1978 an edition specifying ABABA' was prepared by Peter Gülke and published by Peters. In 1999, yet another edition by Jonathan Del Mar was published by Bärenreiter which advocates a return to ABA'. In the accompanying book of commentary, Del Mar defends in depth the view that ABA' represents Beethoven's final intention; in other words, that conventional wisdom was right all along.
In concert performances, ABA' prevailed until fairly recent times. However, since the appearance of the Gülke edition conductors have felt more free to exercise their own choice. The conductor Caroline Brown, in notes to her recorded ABABA' performance with the Hanover Band (Nimbus Records, #5007), writes:
Re-establishing the repeat certainly alters the structural emphasis normally apparent in this Symphony. It makes the scherzo less of a transitional make-weight, and, by allowing the listener more time to become involved with the main thematic motif of the scherzo, the side-ways step into the bridge passage leading to the finale seems all the more unexpected and extraordinary in its intensity.
Performances with ABABA' seems to be particularly favored by conductors who specialize in authentic performance (that is, using instruments of the kind employed in Beethoven's day). These include Brown, as well as Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. ABABA' performances on modern instruments have also been recorded by the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich under David Zinman and by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado.
In fact, since Hopkins wrote this passage (1981), conductors have experimented with preserving Beethoven's original scoring for bassoons. This can be heard on the performance conducted by Caroline Brown mentioned in the preceding section, as well as in a recent recording by Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic. Although horns capable of playing the passage in C major were developed not long after the premiere of the Fifth Symphony (according to this source, 1814), it is not known whether Beethoven would have wanted to substitute modern horns, or keep the bassoons, in the crucial passage.
There are strong arguments in favor of keeping the original scoring even when modern valve horns are available. The overall structure of the movement posits a programatic light-to-dark progression from minor to major, with the topically heroic theme dispelling the darkness of the minor first theme group and ushering in the major second theme group. However, in the development section, Beethoven systematically fragments and dismembers this heroic theme in bars 180-210. Thus he may have rescored its return in the recapitulation for a weaker sound to foreshadow the essential expositional closure in minor. Moreover, the horns used in the fourth movement are natural horns in C, which can easily play this passage. If the instruments were on stage, Beethoven easily could have written "muta in c" in the first movement, similar to his "muta in f" instruction in measure 412 of the first movement of Symphony no.3.