The idea that this immortal work represents the composer’s mighty but victorious struggle with fate is but one of many aspects of the towering masterpiece.
The famous four-note motive that opens the symphony is heard throughout the first movement. The second movement deftly blends gorgeous cantilena with military trumpets, wrapped in variation form.
The third movement is full of mystery, more humorous or spectral than defiant. Out of it grows the finale’s huge shout of triumph, as the trombones proclaim a new order of the universe, supported by piccolo, contrabassoon, and the full weight of C major.
Length: c. 31 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Beethoven began work on the Fifth Symphony shortly after completing the Third; in fact, ideas that he used in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies already had appeared in his sketchbook for the Third. He stopped work on it in 1806 to write what then became his Fourth Symphony. (He also completed the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Triple Concerto, the Mass in C, and the opera Fidelio while working on the Fifth Symphony.) When he resumed work on the Fifth, it was in tandem with a new symphony, the “Pastoral.” Both symphonies had their first performances December 22, 1808, on an ill-fated mega-concert that also included vocal pieces as well as the premieres of the Choral Fantasy and Piano Concerto No. 4, with the composer in his last public appearance as soloist.
Perhaps concision is harder than expansion. Where the Third Symphony exploded the dimensions of the genre toward an almost geographical horizon, the Fifth compresses all those interlocking advances of form and content into a much more compact space. The first movement is the shortest in all of Beethoven’s symphonies, fully energized by that famous four-note opening. This four-note rhythmic motif was an obsession for the composer at the time, appearing in other works and running through this one, sometimes clearly on the surface, other times insinuated deep in the texture.
The second movement is a set of variations on two themes. The first is a sweet song for the violas and cellos; the second transforms that song into a swaggering march that brings in the trumpets and timpani, seldom heard in classical-era slow movements. The scherzo brings the rhythmic motto back into the foreground, only to disappear in an almost comical fugue.
Beethoven linked the scherzo to the finale with an astonishing transition that generates enormous anticipation over the insistent timpani. It bursts into blazing light with the finale and its grandly sweeping aspirations, where Beethoven expands the sonic range of the orchestra with the introduction of piccolo, three trombones, and contrabassoon for the first time in the symphonic literature. He caps this heroic apotheosis with a monumentally triumphant coda. — John Henken