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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67 (1808)
Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
"Three G's and an E flat. Simple. Baby simple. Anybody could do it. Maybe." Leonard Bernstein's famously laconic comment on the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony spotlit the astounding effect in this work of a motif the composer had already employed, to quite different effect, in his third and fourth piano concertos. Beethoven's own comment, as quoted by his unreliable friend Schindler, was that in the Fifth Symphony the notes represented Fate rapping at the door. The description went down in history, though it prompted the Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker to ask whether the same motif in the fourth piano concerto therefore represented Fate rapping at a different door or whether someone else was doing the rapping. In fact the motif was a regular Beethoven fingerprint during a certain period in his career, though he never used it to more potent effect than in the Fifth Symphony, where it pervades the opening movement and returns in both the scherzo and finale. It is a motif which, in any case, had already been employed by Cherubini in his Hymne du Pantheon, as Beethoven surely knew.
The thematic unity of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony is nevertheless one of its strongest features, transcending not only Cherubini's but Beethoven's own previous use of it. Hurled at us at start of the work, it makes its point unequivocally and goes on making it. Not even the plaintive little oboe cadenza which quietly intrudes at the height of the action can impede its progress for long. But whether, as has often been claimed, the music's inexorably marching motion represents Austria expelling the French is hard to say. Certainly, although some listeners are unwilling to see it that way, this is a profoundly militaristic work, and the brassy fanfares in the slow movement, the screeching piccolo and braying trombones in the finale, are in themselves enough to demonstrate this. Not for nothing did a member of the Napoleonic guard, on hearing it for the first time, feel impelled to spring to his feet at the start of the finale crying: "C'est l'empereur." Though that would suggest he had got the wrong end of the stick, it was for the right reasons. The music is ceremonial, victorious, exultant, even brutal in a way that the composer did not always feel to be necessary.
Beethoven, who had once contemplated settling in Paris rather than Vienna, held famously self-contradictory views on Napoleon, as well as possessing a considerable admiration for French music. It was Berlioz, a Frenchman, who said that Beethoven's ability to sustain such a height of effect in this work was prodigious. Yet it took a long time - four years, from 1804 until 1808 - for him to shape the music to his satisfaction. The slow movement, originally conceived as a sort of lumbering minuet, eventually became a theme and variations through whose notes a hint of minuet motion remained discernible. The scherzo, originally an extended movement on the lines of those of the fourth and seventh symphonies, eventually grew shorter. The finale, linked to the scherzo by ghostly drum taps and stealthy strings, announces itself with the most famous burst of C major in musical history, but later refers back to the ghostly passage already heard.
Yet the work as a whole is not purely about progress from the darkness of C minor to the sunshine of the major key. The four notes with which it opens - those three G's and and an E flat - are not specifically in the key of C minor at all. Nor are they played by the full orchestra, though that is the effect which their initial statement on strings and clarinets manages to convey. Beethoven's Fifth may be the most often performed of all his symphonies, but it still has the power to surprise.
© Conrad Wilson