Written by Ronald Comber

Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op.67

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

There was a time, not so long past, when the programming of Beethoven’s Fifth in a concert would elicit groans of dismay from audiences just about anywhere in the Western world.  We had almost loved the work to death with the same unbridled enthusiasm as had already been brought to bear on the Mona Lisa or Hamlet’s Soliloquy.  In some ways, the Fifth has been treated with less respect than is usual with fashion’s favourites – the opening “Fate” theme was treated quite cavalierly as a sort of shorthand description of the mood of the whole work even before its use as the underlying motif behind much of the Allied propaganda of the Second World War, and after all that, it still cropped up in the most surprising places in various companies’ advertising schemes.

That Beethoven’s Fifth is still in the repertoire at all is a tribute to the honesty which lies behind its emotional force.  The first few bars of the work may cause a twinge in the listener somewhat akin to embarrassment, but soon enough all the old magic returns, just as it has done any time in the last one hundred and seventy-five years.

Beethoven worked for a very long time on the Fifth Symphony.  Sketches for the Andante go back as far as 1800, though the work was only completed early in 1808.  To put this better into perspective, this means that he had worked out the concept behind the Fifth Symphony and started work on one movement before he had written his Second Symphony, and only completed it after he had produced his Third and Fourth Symphonies and most of the Sixth.  Mostly, Beethoven had to evolve a new musical language to match his vision of what he called “a duel between free will and determination”.  The three intervening Symphonies were to some extent experimental, leading towards his set goal.

Beethoven’s final triumph over what he must have sometimes perceived as an impossible task can be discovered most readily in his brilliant use through the work of one form or another of his opening theme.  Beethoven incorporated it into all four movements, forging the work into a single dramatic entity – the first time such a thing had been attempted.

The Fifth Symphony had its start in one of those marathon concerts, so dear to the hearts of our ancestors.  On December 22, 1808, Beethoven put on an “Academy” at the Theatre an der Wein, which opened with the premiere of the Pastoral Symphony, went on to movements from the C Major Mass, then to the G Major Piano Concerto.  After the interval came the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, followed by more movements from the Mass, then the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Choir and Orchestra.  He probably gave encores as well.  The critics praised the concert highly, but did not single the Fifth out for special mention, so it was not until 1810, when E.T.A. Hoffman heard the work, that the Fifth Symphony received its first perceptive review.  After that, its success was assured.

The first movement, marked Allegro con brio, is so well known that little needs to be said about it.  The striking intensity generated in the main theme (described as Fate knocking on the door) is brilliantly complemented by the charm of the second subject.  The actual working out of the movement is as close to perfection as humanly possible, and it is given its final impetus in a dynamic coda of giant proportions.

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, is a set of variations based on a song-like melody.  The opening theme is stated with simplicity by the violas and cellos; then elaborated through the addition of winds and upper strings until a brass chorale heralds the first variation.  Here a dichotomy of moods is achieved – a smoother version of the theme coincides with a sketchy pizzicato accompaniment in the strings.  Elaboration again follows, leading to a wonderfully diaphanous second variation.  The theme is developed and new subjects added, until a new playful mood is created for the winds to enjoy.  The third variation progresses through a short development into a grandiose reiteration of the original theme, then moves through a livelier interlude to a final glory.

The Allegro third movement is strongly mystical in nature.  A ghostly passage occurs twice in the basses answered each time by the flute.  Suddenly, the proceedings are interrupted by an imperative horn call, a relative of the “Fate” theme.  The two themes alternate with increasing tension until the sudden contrast is made by the furiously explosive Trio.  Soon the “Fate” motif returns, however, and the work passes without break into the Finale.

The last movement, marked Allegro, comes without warning as a sudden shout of joy.  Beethoven called it “the triumph over adverse destiny”, and in this movement particularly, we can hear his dramatic powers at their greatest peak.  The movement builds throughout, arriving at an Olympian coda in which all of the emotional force of the work is brought together in a staggering climax.


Symphony No.3 in E Flat Major “Eroica”    

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven was like many intellectuals at the turn of the nineteenth century;  a literary democrat.  New freedoms in thought and speech, the American Revolution, the messy, but nonetheless, stirring French Revolution, and a certain amount of Jewish emancipation, had led to a feeling across Europe that perhaps things could change for the better.  On the whole, however, the time for change had not yet come.

There is a story about Beethoven at the time of the “Eroica”.  One day he was walking through a park with the elderly poet Goethe when, turning a corner in the path, they encountered a party of men and women coming toward them– every one a scion of Royalty or of the high nobility. Goethe, an old courtier, stepped off the path, raised his hat, and bowed.  Beethoven strode down the path, pushing his hat down more firmly, and nodded at those Royals he knew.  von Goethe ran up aghast, the party knowing Beethoven, collapsed in peals of laughter, and Beethoven was heard to remark complacently to no one in particular that he believed in the tenets of the democratic system.

There is another, much more famous story about Beethoven, in which he calls his Third Symphony “Bouonaparte” in honour of the apparently democratic little general, then tears up the title page of the work when he learns of Napoleon’s becoming Emperor of France.  Sad to say, this story, long given the most sober credence, is not absolutely true, although there may be some elements of truth in it.  Napoleon was created Emperor in May 1804, some four months before Beethoven violently did away with the offending page.  Certainly something upset him: the first page of the score itself has had the title “Buonaparte” effaced with such violence as to leave holes in the paper.  Beethoven seems to have taken Napoleon’s coronation in relative silence … what was the final straw that broke his camel’s back”

In the end, all of this conjecture is unnecessary.  Beethoven re-entitled the work “Eroica”, declaring it as being “for an unknown hero”, and the Symphony stands strongly on its own as a veritable monument to man’s finest aspirations.

Historically, the merits of the “Eroica” were discovered quite quickly.  It was, as was normal at the time, demolished by the critics at first, particularly in the light of the Second Symphony.  Soon enough, though, the critics were busily attacking the Fourth Symphony, particularly in the light of the “Eroica”, and balance, such as it was, was restored.  Since then, the Third has never been out of favour, and if it has never achieved the manic adulation accorded at one time to the Fifth, it has never been greeted with cries of “Not again!”.  It is frequently asked, in age of ratings and top ten lists, which is the best of Beethoven’s symphonies?  There is no way of saying – they are all sensational.  But if Beethoven came to me in a vision and said that the “Eroica” was the best, I wouldn’t argue.

The first movement of the “Eroica” starts with a bang…two bangs actually.  Then the Symphony begins.  A noble theme, remarkable for its almost martial simplicity, is first displayed, like colours on a mast, then builds into a veritable edifice of sound and power.  A contrasting theme appears, then both ideas are developed to their limits.  The Recapitulation comes as a relief, as the basic simplicity of the material once again comes clear, like a reflection in a pool.

The slow movement, an Adagio assai, is entitled Funeral March, quite unnecessarily.  A bitter, resentful first theme is presented first quietly, then with an alarming vehemence, relieved later by the compelling simplicity of the second subject.  This is a very long movement, to be honest, and although many things happen, they happen in their own time.  One could call this one of the first experiments in “stream of consciousness” writing, and as such, it is superb.  One does not have to go with its flow, however.

The Scherzo comes as a complete shock.  The sudden access of vitality is actually confusing at first.  One suspects Beethoven’s sense of humour got the better of him, an unusual event in an odd numbered symphony.

The Finale is a marvel.  The strings attack with a brilliant passage which leads through a series of heroic chords into the simplest possible iteration of the principal subject.  Strange echoes develop until the second subject eventually makes its appearance.  Soon enough, both themes are being played simultaneously and the movement expands into waves of counterpoint.  The climax, when it comes, is both sudden and titanic … the music returns briefly to themes that have gone before, and the movement ends in total radiance.