Length: c. 30 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
Every listener may feel free to interpret this immortal work in his own fashion. The idea that it represents the composer’s mighty but victorious struggle with destiny was put into circulation by Beethoven himself, or at least by his fantasy-spinning amanuensis Schindler, who reported the composer’s explanation of the opening motive as “So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte” (Thus Fate knocks at the door). Perhaps Beethoven did say that, and it offers a vivid image for an extraordinarily unconventional opening for a classical symphony. But there are so many other forces at work in this symphony, besides that of fate, that we need to open our ears and minds to every signal it sends out. Most listeners agree that the signals may be different at every hearing.
Fate struck Beethoven most cruelly about 1802 when, still in his early 30s, he acknowledged the fact of his deafness and began the long process of coming to terms with a handicap that was less of a musical disability (it did not interfere with his ability to compose) than a social one. His standing as a virtuoso pianist with excellent connections at court was seriously threatened, and his relations with friends, and especially with women, were now forever circumscribed.
We might think that as a composer his reactions were far more violent than the situation warranted. The “Eroica” Symphony, the immediate product of that profound crisis, transformed the world of classical music for ever. He did not stop there. The superhuman creative energy that produced the great heroic works of that decade had never been heard in music before. One colossal path-breaking work followed another, combining unearthly beauty of invention, technical virtuosity, vastness of conception, and a radical freedom of expression and form.
Beethoven may have – privately – felt inordinately sorry for himself, but there is no self-pity in the music. Defiance, yes certainly, although the sense of triumph expressed in the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony is surely more than a tongue-sticking-out I-told-you-so addressed to fate. Beethoven’s triumph gloats not just over an unfair destiny cowering at his feet, but rather over all mankind, over all of us who have the misfortune not to measure up to his infinite creative spirit.
If Beethoven gave up the unequal struggle to take care of worldly and domestic concerns, if he lost control of his finances, if he quarreled with landlords and servants, if he felt robbed by publishers and creditors, if he lived in squalor, if he could not count on the affection and loyalty of friends, there always remained one domain in which he was the unchallenged master: music itself. He could change the world by scratching barely legible lines and dots on ruled paper, the physical manifestation of a cauldron of sound and pride that boiled in his brain.
The famous four-note motive that opens the Symphony is heard constantly in the first movement, but it is far from being the only all-pervading idea as many people suppose. Listen for others! The second movement deftly and curiously blends gorgeous cantilena with military trumpets, all wrapped in variation form. The third movement is full of mystery; not defiant, not triumphant, more humorous or spectral, and out of it grows the huge shout of triumph of the finale, as the trombones proclaim a new order of the universe, supported by piccolo, contrabassoon, and the full weight of C major, the key which Haydn had assigned to the completion of Creation itself.
The disorder and confusion that reigned at the first performance of this Symphony in a famously long concert, which also included the first performances of the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Sixth Symphony, and the Choral Fantasy, perfectly illustrates the sorry mis-match between reality in Beethoven’s life, when a long, difficult concert had to be rehearsed and performed, and the sublime quality of the music itself. No wonder Viennese audiences were confused by this giant in their midst.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.