Beethoven’s Fifth: A look at the world’s most famous symphony

Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fifth symphony – even the Classically illiterate. People around the world instantly recognize the dramatic first four notes (which we’ll listen to shortly). It’s one of the most famous symphonies ever written.

This symphony has a very abrupt feel to it – it’s constantly stopping and starting, driving forward and then halting. Despite its overall intensity and foreboding, the ending is triumphant and there are plenty of softer and sweeter moments embedded in the symphony.

In today’s video we’re going to discuss the symphony – the details about when and under what conditions it was written, and we’ll listen through some musical examples of it while we do a brief analysis.

Even if you know nothing about Classical music or music theory, you should be able to follow along with this analysis. Let’s get started!

Beethoven’s Fifth: The 4 note motif

Before we get into the nitty-gritty with this symphony, let’s have a listen to the very famous opening four-note motif. These four notes have been used all across pop culture, and are universally familiar to musicians and non-musicians alike.

There has been much speculation on those opening four notes and what they mean. Some call it the “fate” motif”, as if those notes are the huge fists of fate smacking down. Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, said that it was inspired by a bird called the yellow hammer.

(The fate theme is more dramatic, but the bird theme is more likely).

There have been other explanations as well (like being politically driven and being about war victory), but one thing we can all agree on is this: If we can instantly recognize a song in the first two seconds, there’s some songwriting mastery at work.

Basic information about Beethoven’s Fifth

Now that we’re all on the same page with what symphony this is, let’s talk about a few of the details. It was composed by Beethoven between the years 1804 and 1808. Symphonies were a common genre in the Classical era, and typically had four movements, with each movement providing lots of musical contrast.

The entire symphony, op. 67, is between 30-40 minutes long, and is in C minor (though not all of the movements are in C minor – only the first and third are).

At the time when he was writing this symphony, Beethoven was in his thirties and already starting to go deaf. There was also plenty of political turmoil in and around Austria at the time, such as Napoleon’s troops occupying Vienna in 1805. We can safely say that this was a tumultuous time of Beethoven’s life, both inwardly and outwardly.

Premiere and reception

Beethoven’s Fifth symphony originally premiered in 1808 at a huge concert in Vienna. Beethoven did all the conducting himself.

This symphony wasn’t particularly well-received at first, partly because the entire concert was over 4 hours long, and the venue was very cold. The orchestra was also underprepared and didn’t play well (even needing to restart a song in the programme).

It eventually got some good reviews, though, and by the mid 1800’s it became standard Classical repertoire, growing into the famous symphony we know and love today.

Best recording of Beethoven’s Fifth

In general, Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s version of Beethoven’s Fifth is considered the gold standard. It was recorded in the mid-1970s, and has since been remastered.

The recording is really to the point and hits hard – definitely check it out. It exists on Spotify, on an album with the Seventh Symphony, if that’s something you use.

Movements and the key of C minor

The movements of this symphony are as follows:

  1. Allegro con brio (C minor)

  2. Andante con moto (A♭ major)

  3. Scherzo: Allegro (C minor)

  4. Allegro (C major)

There is some significance to Beethoven’s choice of C minor for this symphony – he used C minor for many of his stormier, intense works.

The author Charlie Rosen has this to say about Beethoven and the key of C minor:

“Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extroverted form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.”

First movement

Starting with the first movement, we return to the opening four notes that are so famous. But let’s continue forward in our discussion.

The opening movement, which is 8ish minutes long, is the best-known movement of the symphony, even beyond the famous first few notes. It’s written in sonata form, which was typical of the first movements of symphonies.

(If you’d like to learn more about sonata form, we have a video on that).

Basically, sonata form means that this movement has three parts. The first part is called the exposition, and it’s got the main themes. The second part is the development, which takes those main themes and twists them around a bunch. And then we’ve got the recapitulation (think of it as a recap), which is basically the return of the exposition.

In simple terms, you can think of sonata form as a complicated version of ABA form. There’s also a coda at the end.

Second theme

Let’s talk about the second theme briefly. The first theme is famous and intense – but the second theme is dramatically different – it’s almost like listening to an entirely new symphony. Beethoven was a big fan of these juxtapositions, unlike his contemporary Mozart.

Let’s take a listen.

 

 

2nd movement

Double variation form

The second movement is slower (andante con moto – walking speed with motion), typical of a 4-movement symphony. It’s about 9 minutes long, and it’s in double theme and variations form.

We’ve looked at theme and variations on this channel before when we talked about Bach’s Goldberg Variations – check that out if you want to get more into it.

Double theme and variations is just what it sounds like – instead of one theme being varied multiple times, there are two themes that get varied.

The string instruments open up the first theme in unison, later echoed by woodwinds, alternating in call-response writing.

 

Theme 2

The second theme begins with clarinets taking the lead, starting calmly but quickly exploding into brass fanfare. As you listen through the movement (which I hope you do!), you’ll hear these two themes again and how Beethoven manipulates them by playing with tempo, orchestration and dynamics.

Let’s take a quick listen to the melody of the second theme, so you know what tune to listen for.

 

3rd Movement

The scherzo and trio was used by Beethoven in the later Classical period, replacing the more traditional minuet an trio as the typical third movement (in a 4-movement symphony). Scherzos are much faster and livelier than minuets.

This is in simple ternary (three part) form – you have the scherzo (section A), then the trio section (section B), and then you return to the scherzo again (A). This is followed up by a coda (ending).

Return of the 4-note theme

After the “break” of the lovely second movement, we hear that ominous four-note theme here again. It’s not exactly the same, though – it serves as more of a callback, or a unifying theme to tie the contrasts of the symphony together.

We hear that short-short-short-LONG pattern throughout the scherzo section. This time around it has more of a regal and march-like quality to it.

 

Relation to Mozart

The opening notes of the third movement are heavily inspired by the opening notes of the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony.

Here are the opening notes of Mozart’s theme:

And now let’s compare that to Beethoven’s opening notes.

Plagiarism wasn’t really a thing back in the Classical era – musicians borrowed from each other all the time. The similarities likely aren’t an accident, since Beethoven copied out the first several measures of Mozart’s finale in his own drafts of the fifth symphony.

Significant transition to the final theme

What’s worth listening to in the third movement is the transition into the fourth movement. It’s a short transition, marked by low and frightening strings and timpani that builds in intensity. This is considered to be one of Classical music’s great transitions.

Part of the reason for that, aside from the smart transformation from foreboding to triumph, is because there’s no break or pause between the third and fourth movement. Beethoven rolls us right through with no time to catch our breath, which was unusual for the symphonic genre. It’s also apparently a challenge to play.

 

4th Movement

Beethoven made the unusual decision to end his symphony in C major. The reason this is unusual is because most symphonies end in the key they began in – in this case, C minor. But Beethoven is quoted as saying,

“Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! …Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”

Major key ending – final chord sequence

The whole symphony ends with a bunch of C major chords to really drive the triumph home. It’s thought that this chordal ending goes on for so long because Beethoven believed that was the only way to break the tension of such an intense symphony – a whole lot of major chords.

Beethoven got that compositional idea from his contemporary Luigi Cherubini, who often did the same thing to end his overtures. This particular pattern of C major chords is very similar to the ending to Cherubini’s overture from the opera Eliza – showing, again, how common it was for musicians to borrow from each other.

 

Conclusion

If you want to get more into the analysis of this symphony, there’s a great 30-minute YouTube video by Gerard Schwarz that I strongly recommend checking out.

Now go and listen to Carlos Kleiber’s version of this symphony, and enjoy the emotional and intense journey!

xo,

Allysia

Video music credits:

Performed by: European Archive

Copyright: Public domain mark 1.0