The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Thomas May

The very theater in which Die Fledermaus received its premiere in 1874, the legendary Theater an der Wien, was the same space that hosted the first performances of several major compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven-including the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. Talk about a blockbuster evening of music history: the night in question, December 22, 1808, featured one of the composer's "academy concerts" whose purpose was to present his latest efforts but, even more importantly, to raise funds to support his work. During that freezing night, the auditorium was unheated and the concert was exhaustingly lengthy, but those were the first audiences who got to hear-in one sitting!-the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasy (a kind of precursor to the Ninth). As if that were not enough, also on the program were the Fourth Piano Concerto, excerpts from the Mass in C major, and a concert aria. The Fifth Symphony (misnumbered on the program) opened the second part of the evening.

According to a brief report in Vienna's Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: "In regard to the performances at this concert, however, the concert [sic] must be called unsatisfactory in every respect." So much for hard-to-please critics....

In a curious way-curious because Beethoven's ingenious architecture makes the finale essential to understanding the work- the first movement of Op. 67 has become a kind of metonym for the entire Fifth Symphony, and the opening bars have become a microcosm of both. This iconic moment has opened up the door (regardless of whether any "knocking" was involved, by fate or any other entity) to an endless realm of myth, analysis, and hearsay. These involve a whole spectrum of interpretations, from clichés passed down over the years and biographical sleuthing to rigorous musicological exegesis and philosophical speculation.

And what is that iconic moment? Four notes-or, more accurately, nine notes, comprising two not-quite-symmetrical phrases-stated in unison by the strings plus clarinets. Might this gesture-from silence to highly dramatic articulation-encode the composer's perception of his own worsening deafness and the will to wrest meaningful sound from the silent void? Or could the motto itself, as Beethoven's prodigy pupil Carl Czerny claimed, represent a pre Messiaenesque transcription of the birdcall of the yellowhammer, which Beethoven chanced to notice during one of his nature walks? Might it have to do with the ancient poetic meter of Homer, a favorite poet of the composer?

All of these facets belong to the richly layered reception history of the Fifth. And, like that perennially revolutionary-sounding score, Le Sacre du printemps, if we allow ourselves to listen with renewed concentration to a committed performance, the Fifth can still overwhelm with its undimmed force and energy: the musical equivalent of the fission of a nucleus (the motivic material) that sets off an unstoppable chain reaction of ideas. The side of Beethoven that the modern German composer Hans Werner Henze so admired and emulated - the artist firmly engaged with the issues of his time - may help in some way to explain why this music manages to still sound so overwhelmingly paradigm-shifting: music of a revolution in the making.

In The First Four Notes, his recent book on the cultural history of the Fifth Symphony, Matthew Guerrieri points out that the three shorts-plus-long rhythmic scheme of the Fifth's opening aligns with the meter of "La Marseillaise" and that the actual sonority of the Symphony's triumphant finale can also be linked to "the general French Revolutionary musical style-martial, strongly rhythmic, almost aggressively major-mode triadic." And even the "tragic" context of the first movement "could just as easily have found a place in the grand Fêtes of the Revolution ... designed to periodically fire the public's republican enthusiasm."

Yet how to square this blatantly revolutionary rhetoric with Beethoven's contradictory political attitudes (think of his changed attitude toward Napoleon, or the later years after the Congress of Vienna had consolidated the reactionary state authority)? Should those martial sounds be heard as a way of harnessing their earlier connotation in the service of patriotic fervor against the French? Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of the Fifth as a whole is that Beethoven achieves his most revolutionary effects by the manipulation of the conventions of high-Classical syntax, further refining and exploiting the explosive potential of sonata form in the first movement, for example, with its fields of tonal tension and release.

The motivic concentration of "the first four notes" has enthralled generations of commentators-to the point of hyperbole, it must be admitted, and even misguided listening. You'll get far more out of the Fifth if you listen without preconceived "explanations," such as the longstanding notion that the opening motif is a sort of obsessive compulsive tic that saturates every square inch of the music. For one thing, this is not the only source of the first movement's concentrated power. That power also resides in the silences, in the implied uptake of breath right before the first note, and in the chasm of silence separating the first and second statements of the idea. What to make of the poignant oboe solo that seems to want to delay the inevitable recapitulation? And what about the remarkably lengthy coda? At least as significant as the development section, the coda is where Beethoven ratchets the tension up even higher by exiling the "everpresent" motif-all to terrifically suspenseful effect.

The Andante, structured as a set of double variations, contrasts a serene, elongated melody with a compactly shaped militaristic fanfare. The latter brings into question another cliché about the Fifth: that Beethoven stages the "triumph" of victorious C major over tragic C minor. Yes, ultimately, but that reading neglects crucial details. What about the eruption of C major here, in this fanfare? Or, in a reverse direction, what about the spooky return of the sound world of the Scherzo in the very heart of the finale, after "victorious" C major has already been clinched? Not to mention the almost maniacally comic, tail-chasing C major of the Trio in the third movement. Also note in the third movement that a commonplace critique of Beethoven as a "mediocre" orchestrator can only be deaf to the marvelously Gothic, spine-chilling "special effects" of the lengthy passageway from the third movement to the finale.

This transition through a bleak fog, according to the savvy Beethoven commentator Robert Simpson, "is no romantic ‘triumph.' The antithesis of scherzo and finale is an elemental phenomenon, and the finale has the last word only because it suggests a condition in which human power can thrive, not because the world of the scherzo has ceased to exist."

The Fifth Symphony has accrued a complex history of extramusical associations (whether of psychobiography, philosophy, politics, or even neurology). These stand in stark contrast to its status as the epitome of "absolute music," of a self-referential language that is eminently satisfying as an aesthetic experience in terms of its internal consistency and logic.

Matthew Guerrieri makes the useful point that even if "the subversive opening almost inevitably echoes the upheavals of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftershocks," the Fifth can hardly be simplified as propaganda, for "the zeal was shorn of a specific agenda. Beethoven became the prototypical revolutionary composer" because his music sounds like the "good" revolution generations have wished to imagine, while "the composers of the Fêtes, for the most part, faded into obscurity."

In other words, the Fifth remains both bound to its time and yet transcends it-which is a good definition of a classic in fact. Perhaps E.T.A. Hoffmann, among the first to intuit this transcendent quality, was also prescient in understanding that the true revolution Beethoven accomplishes here is to develop a language that effectively communicates truths we feel to be deeper than words.