It had to be one of the most amazing concerts of all time: December 22, 1808. Beethoven had been given the free use of the Theater-an-der-Wien for a concert of his own. The event, lasting some five hours in an unheated theater, offered a marathon parade of new works to an audience that remained spellbound (though tested on a Herculean scale) for the evening of “new music.” The program featured premieres of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, followed by the aria Ah! Perfido, two movements from the Mass in C Major, the fourth piano concerto, Symphony No. 5, and the entire Choral Fantasy. An unrehearsed orchestra, a soprano trembling with stage fright and freezing temperatures could not dampen the wonder of the music.
Beethoven worked on several works simultaneously, and as it happened, all of these were at the starting gate. It was the fifth symphony that jolted the audience to attention with its shockingly wild drive and tension incorporated in unrelenting vehemence. Reviewers, however, gave relatively short shrift to No. 5. The poet Goethe said that “it is merely astounding, grandiose.” A year later, the romantic novelist E. T. A. Hoffman, in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, hoisted the flag and gave his florid viewpoint: “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 as captivated beholders of the spirits.”
The fifth symphony was completed in 1808, although sketches appear as early as 1800 and more frequently in the composer’s notebooks between 1804-1806. After completion, Beethoven wrote to his patron, Count Franz von Oppersdorff, “Your symphony is, at last, ready, but in case you do not want it, let me know … I am not well, and I am being treated for an injured finger. Things are going badly with me. The cost is 300 florins and the balance is due.”
1808 was a terrible time for Beethoven. Impending deafness frightened him to the core, the Emperor Napoleon was marching over his homeland, and his brother had married a wretched woman whom he called “Queen of the Night.” Money was short. Music alone made life bearable, and through music, he became a master of his destiny. That journey is reflected in the iconic fifth. And through this, Beethoven comprehensively speaks for and to us all.
The opening begins with a thunderclap: the famous four-note motto theme, three quick Gs and a long E flat, proclaimed fortissimo. Momentum generated by the repetition of the first three notes is dramatically halted in an extended fourth tone. The composer holds us breathless and then insistently repeats the three notes on a lower tone and again holds us tight on the fourth. After this unbelievable introduction, Beethoven unleashes a movement unlike any other in his time. From the opening kernel, he developed a symphonic masterpiece, demonstrating a new symphonic principal: the potential of a single gesture to generate an enormous piece. Rhythms are torrential, but the single focus on the motto insists upon that underlying idea. Sometimes the idea screams, sometimes whispers or pants in the depths of the orchestra, but it is unstoppable. A lyrical second theme introduced by French horn is beautiful but overwhelmed by the rage and insistence of the opening grip. A turbulent development continues the obsession with the opening motto, not uttered in tight integration. Within a traditional recapitulation, Beethoven stops the action with an expressive oboe cadenza, and then he moves us into a long coda, hammering the motto again and again into our soul. “This is one of the most powerfully integrated movements in all symphonic literature.” (Edward Downes)
His second movement, Andante con moto, spins a series of four variations on two main ideas. Violas and cellos first sing a richly declaimed song before clarinets, flute and bassoons chant a sturdier, more assertive idea. Although writing double variations on these two ideas, Beethoven cannot resist allowing rhythmic allusions to the opening cell to persist.
The third movement, Allegro, is a scherzo rather than a traditional minuet and trio. Ominously, hushed cellos and basses restlessly stir the first musical ideas before French horns emerge with a strong theme, again referencing the opening idea. Themes spar back and forth. A dramatic pianissimo section, underscored by muttering timpani, charges the atmosphere before an extended crescendo moves directly to the brilliant finale.
The fourth movement ratchets up instrumental color by the addition of piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones. (This was the first time trombones appeared in a symphony orchestra.) A panoply of themes occupies the enlarged canvas and palette. Trombones are invoked to lead the extroverted march-like theme, which sets the stage for the greater dimensions. While the contrabassoon adds depth, the piccolo provides glitter. Within the exuberant mood, Beethoven leads us to his triumphant coda, now stressing the light of C Major for 54 measures. Michael Steinberg has written, “This victory symphony was a new kind of symphony, and Beethoven’s invention here of a path from strife to triumph became a model for symphonic writing to the present day.”
The fifth spoke a musical language no one had heard before. Paul Bekker noted, “In Beethoven, a composer arose who completely understood the possibilities of the art. He knew the secret forces of his spiritual kingdom…. He was artist enough to enforce his will.” The musical mission lay far beyond entertainment. We are also provided a window into what was yet to come from the Beethoven sound, as well as his conviction that music was a critical and elevating force for life. “Beethoven broke all the rules and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. He had the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right with the world.” (Leonard Bernstein)
For a chance to look at musical ideas and development of the 5th, check out: