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ARCHIVE: Beethoven's Fifth

Originally published 4/9/20


Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was premiered on December 22, 1808. It began the second half of a four-hour concert that started with Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and included Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Choral Fantasy. Beethoven conducted and played piano. The concert was nearly a disaster.

While we all know the story about Eroica and the "program" for the Pastoral Symphony, it is widely assumed that the Fifth has none. I believe that assumption is a mistake. It is very much a product of the time, with revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. War was declared against France three months later, and Vienna was surrounded the following month. Added to that was Beethoven's increasing deafness that led to thoughts of suicide.

I find expressed in the Fifth Symphony struggles on a personal, national, and Euro-political level.

The main theme refers to Luigi Cherubini’s Hymne du Pantheon, which celebrated the French Revolution. (Cherubini lived in Paris at the time and Beethoven even thought of moving to

France.) The first movement has conflicts of themes, harmonies, and sections of the orchestra. Consensus is finally achieved, with the decision to go to war to fight tyranny, despite a call for peace from the oboe.

The second movement, in A-flat major (and with a dynamic and mood far removed from the C minor first movement) has two themes. The first is a recurring love theme; the second has a military orchestration and feel. This could be a soldier saying goodbye to his beloved, and is one of Beethoven's most touching expressions.

The third movement begins with the fearful time preceding battle, complete with a nervous shiver. Marching to the battlefield with heavy steps, the soldier pleads to be spared. At the trio, soldiers charge in waves of musket-bearing groups, cheering as they go. The second advance has a hesitation. Following the skirmish, the soldiers scatter. The fog of war has them in doubt as to the victor. Tiptoeing as they signal each other, distant drums have no identifiable flag. As the smoke clears, Victory is assured. Here is orchestrated joy, with hymns of hallelujah and dancing in the streets. (The exposition repeat, part of sonata form, interrupts the flow and is best omitted.) The return of the third movement theme allows a moment of remembrance for those who had died in battle. The oboe reminds us that he told us so. The celebration resumes. Beethoven signs his name in the final three chords.

Note: I have taught the above interpretation some 52 times as part of my Music Appreciation classes. Soon, I will provide a detailed (i.e., bar by bar) description of what I believe Beethoven was saying in this symphony. Having listened to it more than 100 times, the clearest representation of the above is the 1971 recording of the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. This combination of fire and ice is stunning.

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