Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo: Allegro
First performance: December 22, 1808, Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, conductor.
The nine symphonies of Beethoven are unique in that no other single body of work by any composer enjoys such universal respect and popularity. The majority of Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies are virtually unknown. Each of Beethoven’s symphonies are widely known, performed, and studied. To pick the most popular one is exceedingly difficult, for one’s favorite is often the symphony most recently heard. Some prefer the revolution of Symphony No.3, others the universal brotherhood celebrated in Symphony No.9. Symphony No.5, however, may be the most popular, which is not so much due to its familiar opening “short-short-short-Iong, ‘V’ for victory” motto (not everyone remembers its use during World War II), but rather because of its raw power and the overwhelming way it represents a triumph over adversity. E.M. Foster referred to it as “the most sublime noise that has even penetrated the ear of man.”
The first sketches for Symphony No.5 date from the period during 1803-04 when Beethoven was working on Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”. The same sketch books also show preliminary work on Symphony No.4, Symphony No.6, Piano Concerto No.4, and Fidelio. Symphony No.5 was to be his first symphony in a minor key. It is likely that he was inspired by minor-key symphonies of Haydn and, even more directly, by Mozart’s great Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491. The influence of Haydn can be heard in the symphony’s movement from C minor to C major. Mozart’s influence is exhibited in the tragic mood expressed by the first three movements. There is much in common with the darker moments of Fidelio as well. Both works reached completion at the same time, but the opera had to take precedence due to time constraints beyond Beethoven’s control. The premiere of Symphony No.5 took place on December 22, 1808, at a famous concert which also featured the premieres of Symphony No.6 and Piano Concerto No.4.
The fifth symphony is remarkable in that the compelling energy of the entire first movement is derived from only a short opening motive of four notes. Literally every element is derived from this motive. Even the “contrasting” second subject is built upon the melodic outlines of the first bars and is accompanied by the motive itself. The development section makes use not only of the motive as a whole, but also of the individual parts. The rhythm alone drives the movement relentlessly. After such an outburst, the ear and mind long for a respite. Beethoven offers one by providing a simple second movement consisting of two alternating themes in the unexpected key of A-flat major. Even here, however, some of the first movement’s fury is present, as evidenced by the fact that the second theme is hammered out by trumpets and drums. Formally, the third movement is a scherzo in a minor key. Here again, the rhythm of the opening motive drives the music forward. The energetic trio consists of fugal passages beginning in the bass parts. When one expects to hear a literal repeat of the scherzo, the music returns quietly and fragmented. Then, in place of an ending, a long, mysterious crescendo leads directly into the triumphant C major march which concludes the symphony. Here again, all is not predictable. The opening motive and parts of the scherzo return near the conclusion of the march. The last movement marks the first use of piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones in a symphony.