Beethoven’s 1808 Symphony No. 5 is written in the dark and stormy key of C minor and begins with the most recognizable theme in all of Classical music. The four-note motto that opens the symphony was reportedly described by Beethoven himself as “fate knocking at the door”, a Romantic notion that goes perfectly with Beethoven’s tragic life. Certainly, the adult Beethoven had a difficult life! By the time of this symphony, he was already struggling with lingering tinnitus in his ears, which would eventually lead to complete deafness.
If the composer were alive today, he would be a rich man from royalties on the opening motto alone: coffee mugs, posters, umbrellas, cell phone ringtones, etc. It is so universally recognized that a recording of the symphony went into outer space onboard the two Voyager spacecraft as a part of the famous Golden Record. It was called The Sounds Of Earth and contained a selection of recordings of life and culture on Earth. I think no one would argue against Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example of humankind’s greatest achievements!
Interestingly, in France, this symphony is referred to not as fateful, but as a “song of victory”! The French hear echoes of their own history of revolution and liberty. Certainly Beethoven’s masterful control of light and dark, finishing in some of the most triumphant and optimistic music ever composed, could lead to that view. But one of the things I have noticed in my life is that great works of genius can be interpreted in numerous ways on numerous levels and yet never fully reveal themselves to us. Whatever narrative you prefer, this is an undeniably great and deeply moving work.
Recommended recording: Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1963)
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