by Allen Whear (1957–2022)
Ludwig van Beethoven left his native Bonn for Vienna in 1792, at age 21, establishing himself as a brilliant pianist and improviser and an increasingly popular composer of piano and chamber music. He took his time throwing his hat in the symphonic ring: not until the final weeks of 1799 did he begin serious work on a symphony. The resulting Symphony no. 1 enjoyed a successful premiere in 1800, and led to a commission to write music for a ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). This was considered a great honour for a composer who had not yet proven himself in music for the stage. The first performance of Prometheus took place in March 1801 at the Hofburgtheater in Vienna. The Overture is a rousing curtain raiser that celebrates the heroic aspects of the mythical bringer of fire and life.
Symphony no. 4 in B-flat Major
After completing the monumental Eroica Symphony in 1804, Beethoven began sketching a new symphony in C minor that would eventually become the well-known Fifth. He repeatedly laid the work aside to work on other compositions, including an entirely new symphony in B-flat, the Fourth. A visit to the summer residence of Count Franz von Oppersdorf, who had his own private orchestra, resulted in this commission. Because of its relatively relaxed character, its classical framework and conservative instrumentation, and its placement between two iconic siblings (the Third and Fifth Symphonies), Schumann would later aptly describe the Fourth as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods.” The first performance of the Fourth Symphony took place in March 1807 at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, in a program that also included the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture.
The Adagio introduction begins in an atmosphere of unusual mystery as the orchestra explores various tonalities, as if groping in darkness. The issue is settled when a searing chord launches the sparkling Allegro vivace.
The second movement Adagio is in a serenely expansive rondo* form. Its broad cantabile* principal theme is punctuated by a rhythmic accompaniment figure that evolves through the movement; even the timpani gets its turn. The following Allegro vivace is a scherzo in a newly expanded formal pattern Beethoven would use throughout his middle period: the playful Trio (Un poco meno allegro) appears twice rather than the more usual once, creating a five-part arch-like structure of Menuetto – Trio – Menuetto – Trio – Menuetto.
The breathtaking finale (Allegro ma non troppo) is a near perpetual motion: even the lyrical second theme seems restless. Listen carefully for the return of the opening material: the bassoon sneaks the bubbling main theme in before the orchestra can catch up. In the coda, Beethoven borrows a trick from Haydn’s playbook, “the excellence of which lies in its badness,” according to the musiciologist Donald Tovey. The theme is slowed significantly, then teasingly drawn out in fragments, like a scrap held before a hungry dog. After a good joke there’s always someone who laughs first. This time, it’s the bassoons, violas, and cellos driving merrily to the finish.
Symphony no. 5 in C Minor
Some five years after the initial sketches of his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was ready to present it to the world. Imagine yourself in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on the evening of December 22, 1808, awaiting what was to be a historic benefit concert. Pretend you have never heard what is now the most famous symphony in the world, not to mention the most universally recognized motive: those first four notes! In a four-hour marathon concert—under-rehearsed and under-heated—Beethoven premiered an astonishing number of masterpieces: the “Pastoral” Symphony no. 6, Mass in C, Fourth Piano Concerto (played by Beethoven himself), and Choral Fantasy, each worthy of being the centerpiece of its own concert. The second half opened with the Fifth Symphony.
Volumes have been written on the symbolism of the Fifth Symphony, beginning with Anton Schindler’s unreliable assertion that the four-note motive was, according to Beethoven, “Fate knocking at the door.” It was seen by Romantics as a validation of their ideals, and has been interpreted as a manifestation of Beethoven’s personal struggles, but its novelty and undeniable power are demonstrable in purely musical terms.
The Allegro con brio is a quintessential example of Beethoven’s technique of thematic development from concise “germ” motives. Scarcely a bar goes by in this tightly constructed movement that does not contain the four-note motive or its rhythm. Echoes of it are heard in the bass even during the lyrical second theme. A fleeting break from the relentless drive occurs in the recapitulation, when the oboe hovers enigmatically in a brief cadenza.
The Andante con moto is essentially a theme and variations, but with two distinctly different themes. Violas and cellos present the initial theme, extended by the woodwind choir and then all the strings. The second, more assertive theme quickly moves into C major, supported by trumpets and timpani, but soon dissolves as the variations on the original theme proceed. This pattern continues—variations alternating with the second theme—as though C major is trying to establish authority (spoiler alert: see Finale). But in the end, the principal theme in A-flat acquires some of the military character of the other and finally prevails.
The scherzo (Allegro) begins mysteriously, with cellos and basses groping through arpeggios for a sustained theme, until the horns enter decisively, with a theme rhythmically linked to the first movement. These characters alternate until the trio, where Beethoven’s humour emerges for the first time. A fugato* in C major begins well enough in the basses, but on the reprise, they seem unable to get things underway, and after a couple of false starts the fugato resumes, but softly and without a sense of direction, leading back to the mysterious opening of the scherzo. Now bassoon and pizzicato strings engage in a macabre dance, until the timpani begins an insistent tapping of C while the strings are suspended in ppp [very, very soft], setting up one of the most remarkable transitions in the history of music. While staying soft, the tension steadily increases until a sudden crescendo reveals the blazing finale (Allegro): darkness is utterly vanquished.
As the finale progresses, the triumph of C major seems absolute, and Beethoven uses a special arsenal—the addition of piccolo, contrabassoon, and three trombones for the first time in a symphony—to ensure victory. In the middle section, in another of Beethoven’s completely original strokes, a quietly ominous form of the scherzo returns, but is transcended once again. The supremacy of C major—or the “triumph over Fate,” of light over darkness, if you prefer—is furthered in the coda (Presto), where for nearly 100 bars nothing is heard but dominant and tonic chords* in that key.
Robert Schumann, born six months after the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, wrote that it “still exercises its power over all ages, just as those great phenomena of nature which, no matter how often they occur, fill us with awe and wonder. This symphony will go on centuries hence, as long as the world and the world’s music endure.”
cadenza: a flourish played by a soloist while the orchestra pauses
cantabile: in a singing or lyrical style
dominant & tonic chords: chords built on the 5th and 1st notes of the musical scale and which traditionally are the two final chords in most Western musical genres, from pop to folk to classical
fugato: an imitative passage in the style of a fugue
recapitulation: the return of the opening material
rondo form: a musical structure consisting of a series of sections, the first of which recurs in a pattern (e.g. A-B-A-C-A)