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Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3 = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3 = contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
In his Memoirs, Hector Berlioz describes his attempt at getting his own teacher, Jean-François Le Sueur, whom he described as “an honest man without envy in his nature, the prisoner of musical dogmas...,” chief among them being the one then prevalent in France – that Beethoven was a barbarian – to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 1828 at the Paris Conservatoire. “[Le Sueur] wanted to give it an unbiased hearing, without distractions of any kind, so he dismissed me,” Berlioz writes, “and sat by himself... When it was over, I came down from the floor above, eager to know what effect this extraordinary work had on him... I found him in the corridor, striding along with flushed face. ‘Ouf! Let me get out[, Le Sueur said]. I must have some air. It’s amazing! Wonderful! I was so moved and disturbed that when I emerged from the box and attempted to put on my hat, I couldn’t find my head. Now please leave me. We’ll meet tomorrow.’ The next day I hurried round to see him. The conversation at once turned to the masterpiece that had stirred us so profoundly... It was easy to see that my companion was no longer the man who had spoken to me the day before, and that he found the subject painful. I persisted, however, until I had dragged from him further acknowledgment of how deeply Beethoven’s symphony had moved him; at which he suddenly shook his head and smiled in a curious way and said, ‘All the same, music like that ought not to be written.’ Don’t worry master, I retorted, there is not much danger that it will.”
The C-minor Symphony has always occupied a unique position among Beethoven’s, indeed among Western music’s, great achievements: a work so well-known, so often referred to as to attain a status of the sacrosanct. Descriptions of its intent and effect have become an extreme challenge to writers, musically-oriented and otherwise. It – particularly the four-note opening motto theme – has taken on a quite spectacular extra-musical life, as “fate knocking on the door,” the cliché coined by the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler (or perhaps by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries). Someone else, I can’t recall who, authoritatively stated that its rhythm was that of a birdcall Beethoven jotted down during one of his celebrated country walks. Sir George Grove, of Grove’s Dictionary fame, regarded the motto theme as a Beethoven self-portrait, revealing his “fierce, imperious nature.” And of course, the motto was identified during World War II with the Morse code letter “V” (three shorts and a long), as in “V for Victory.”
Countless writers, notably successful among them E. M. Forster, in his novel Howard’s End, have described the effect on the listener of the Fifth Symphony, and Berlioz had much more of worth to say, to which I direct the reader.
If a case can be made for the G-major Piano Concerto as a subtle encounter of darkness with light, then with the Fifth Symphony it becomes a titanic struggle. Indeed the unwritten theme of the Symphony is conflict: darkness against light, freedom against tyranny (to get somewhat more fancifully programmatic), with the forces of light/right ultimately prevailing. Perhaps the most convincing testimonial to the Symphony’s pull on the ear and the mind is that it could gain a central position in the repertory even during Beethoven’s lifetime.
What is it that makes the C-minor Symphony such a gripping experience? One hardly dares venture an explanation after so much exposure to its fascinations and so much ink expended elsewhere. But surely its rhythmic intensity – to a degree never before encountered in symphonic music – is a factor. Then, perhaps even more important to an understanding of why this music continues to exert its spell after nearly two centuries, is its extreme concentration of energy, achieved through the tightest interrelatedness of themes, tonalities, and moods.
— Herbert Glass