Words About Music 2021 Program Notes
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
By Lily Begg
Everyone can hum the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. Since their shattering first announcement in 1808 they have captured audience, scholar, and critical imagination alike. Curt and volatile, they constitute a motif so well-known that they have come to represent musical shorthand for any situation of impending doom and it is hard to think of another musical theme that encapsulates such a monumental notion as fate with as much power and concision.
But imagine hearing this symphony for the first time, when it premiered in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Its first performance certainly did not suggest enduring success. The hall was apparently too cold, and the program too long. The audience was restless and the orchestra played badly, to the point of stopping and starting again. In fact, the gravity of the work was almost entirely overlooked, until a strikingly poetic review by E. T. A. Hoffmann captured critical attention a year and a half later.
Hoffmann – artist, composer, critic, jurist, and author of fantasy and gothic horror – has a legacy as one of the Romantic era’s greatest polymaths. His review of Beethoven’s Fifth is based solely on a reading of the score, which is remarkable given that the ornate imagery of his prose captures the music so vividly: ‘Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing – a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.’ Hoffmann goes on to praise the work as an ‘indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor’.
Listening to the Symphony today still elicits a sense of awe. Its opening is so unexpected and bold. Beethoven keeps the audience in suspense for six tense bars before key and meter are made explicit, and we feel a relief in the announcement of a low C from the cello and bassoon. According to Classical convention, the key of C minor signifies particular emotional turbulence, and Beethoven reserves it for his stormiest works. Along with Symphony No.5, his Third Piano Concerto (1800) and Choral Fantasy (1808) are among his C minor compositions, and display his most heroic countenance.
Beethoven is purported to have said that the famous opening motif is ‘the sound of Fate knocking at the door’. Though an enduringly popular idea with audiences, this notion is undermined by the genesis story offered by Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny. Czerny claimed that the opening four notes ‘had come to [Beethoven] from a yellow-hammer’s song, heard as he walked in the Prater-park in Vienna.’ It seems unlikely that such an austere theme could be inspired by birdsong, however this account has found support among some musicologists, among them Antony Hopkins. Hopkins did concede, though, that the public has undoubtedly ‘preferred the more dramatic myth’.
Anecdotal accounts show the power and passion of this symphony reverberating throughout history. During WWII, the BBC used the opening phrase to precede certain international announcements, and it came to be known as the ‘Victory Symphony’. It was adopted across Britain and France as a galvanising anthem, symbolising endurance and the hope of triumph to soldiers and civilians amidst the conflict.
The symphony is in four movements. The propulsive Allegro con brio is followed by the simple lyricism of the Andante con moto, which presents two stately themes: the first in the cellos and violas, which are then joined by the clarinets, bassoons, and violins for the second. The third movement bends the classical tradition by employing a scherzo, rather than the more conventional minuet, to contrast the trio section. Its coda moves into the fourth movement without pause, the music bursting into C major for a triumphant Allegro. This is unusual for a work which, according to traditional form, should finish in C minor. But Beethoven is emphatic about his choice of key: the symphony concludes with 29 bars of repeated fortissimo C major chords. The foreboding promise of the symphony’s beginning fades into distant memory as the resounding final minutes deliver an ultimate message of hope.
By Ashleigh Ho
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony allows for one’s imagination to take flight.
I picture: A hawk gliding through the wind, fire roaring and crackling through the glistening green forestry, a king sitting daintily in his throne as a crown is placed upon his head, two lovers dancing together across a room.
It is no wonder why the piece continues to resonate with audiences in this current decade. The first four notes continue to be popularised by modern media. It is easy to assume that it is about despair. But in reality, this piece is a story, showcasing both dark and light elements of life itself. A good and evil. And this emotional power is what has made the symphony so profoundly relatable to audiences throughout the years.
Ludwig van Beethoven is an artist forever stamped in time. Born in the 18th century, Beethoven lived through one of the most chaotic periods in history. With world changing events such as The French Revolution marching into his life, war leaking into Vienna, and his country falling into political disarray, Beethoven had plenty of inspiration for his music. His encounters with a world filled with the tensions of war and political uncertainty shaped his compositions. He gave voice to triumph and turbulence in a way which still speaks to us more than 200 years later.
The four movements of the Fifth Symphony, if sketched, would take the shape of an erratic heartbeat.
Those well-known thunderous strings at the beginning of the Allegro con brio thrust the piece into mayhem. And the contrasting dynamics bouncing between piano and fortissimo only accentuate the chaos further. As everything climaxes, French horns slice through with a sound like the tolling of a grandfather clock. Immediately following, violins chime in with a gentle quiver. This eventually escalates to the grandeur of a spirited and synchronised ballroom dance – almost indicating that the piece has moved into a more positive frame of mind. However, the seconds of bliss are over in a blitz. We’re back to struggling through the raging storm. These positive and negative beats ‘converse’ with each other throughout the rest of the movement. The conflicting melodies are reflective of the ebb and flow that journey this symphony takes us on.
The Andante con moto invites us to imagine ballroom dancers who are swaying gently across the room. This second movement is an enormous contrast to its predecessor. Soft and calm tunes rock you slowly; then, the movement takes on a tune that is comparable to a patriotic national anthem – Imagine: a solid salute. The brass section shines through in this movement, embodying majesty and grandeur. And then, just as in the first movement, we switch back to our fluttering dancers. And then again, back to a steady salute as the brass sings in a full fortissimo. These contrasts are a theme throughout the entire symphony. However, unlike the notion of uncertainty in the first movement, the second evokes a more calming atmosphere.
As the third movement begins the air is hostile. Deep, soft rumbling notes lure us into this new movement. Then, a brilliant fortissimo – similar to the grandiose patriotism in the previous movement. But there is an underlining villainous tone – something bitter is brewing here. This is accompanied by the low tremble of percussion. Just as the strings return to a soft rumble, there is a sudden restlessness. Strings and wind pick up in pace and volume fluttering frantically. The main melody returns in full force: the trumpets and horns personifying something sinister. It feels like a battle is looming.
Triumph. The Finale: Allegro shatters through the room, echoing the imagery of patriotic salutations from the Andante con moto. The strong melody lines, highlighted by the brass section, are like tolling wedding bells. The triumphant fortissimo in a major key draws out themes of heroism and pride. It is strange how a piece that appeared so desolate at its foundation can end with such optimism. The synchronised and repetitive downward notes from the strings allude to the fact that this piece will end with a ‘happily ever after’. And, as the piece enters its final moments, the momentum picks up once again and ends with a valiant explosion. We are left to only relish in this heroic story.