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Why I Love Beethoven’s Fifth

Note: March is a key month in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. In March of 1778, at the age of eight, Beethoven had his very first public performance. In March of 1783, at age thirteen, he wrote his first composition; and in March of 1795, at twenty-five, he gave his first public performance in Vienna.

Beethoven was in his mid-thirties and going deaf when he composed the iconic Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, the so-called Fifth Symphony, that we all know by its opening notes: ta-ta-ta-TA. This dramatic four-note motif—three short Gs and a long E-flat—sets in motion a layered story of sound that expresses all of humanity as it reflects Beethoven’s own inner turmoil.

Let me set the broader context of the period. Music in late 18th-century and early 19th-century Vienna was often performed in people’s homes. People were known to bring their cats and dogs to the concerts. During this particular era, however, great unrest surrounded Vienna; the Ottoman Empire was just a few kilometers away. Austria was in the midst of political turmoil and, in 1805, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s troops in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars.

It was just a year earlier when Beethoven began work on his Fifth Symphony. The premiere of his most endurTheater an Der Wien, Beethoven's Fifthing and recognizable work took place in a freezing theatre in Vienna (Theatre an der Wien) in late December of 1808. The evening’s repertoire included his Sixth Symphony, played first, followed by an aria and a piano concerto; it ended with the Choral Fantasy. He introduced his Fifth Symphony in the second half of the program. The orchestra only had one rehearsal and played so badly that Beethoven, acting as both pianist and conductor, had to direct the ensemble to stop the music and start over again. The concert lasted for more than four hours.

The exhausted audience didn’t seem to have strong reactions to this new work and, initially, there was little critical response. But, before long, Beethoven’s Fifth was recognized for its vast technical and emotional impact. Never before had a composition so completely expressed the journey from turmoil to splendor, from darkness to light, from struggle and suffering to hope and glory.

The opening motif creates an anxious, restless yearning, and, later, a suspense and mystery, like what a reader might expect in a fine novel. The rhythm of those four notes coursed throughout this masterpiece symphony alongside deepening sweeps of sounds. It is somewhat like cooking a soup, as Rossen Milanov, maestro of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, who is also a chef, likes to say. “The soup gets bigger while you’re cooking it and then you take it to a boil,” just as the music becomes thick with instruments, then gets louder and louder.

The first movement takes only about eight minutes, the dramatic tension coming from relentless variations of the one main motif. Just once is there a brief respite as Beethoven stops the orchestral sound and offers a singular voice through an oboe (cadenza)—intimate, as if coming from another place, perhaps from pain and longing—before he returns to the throes of the drama. In the second movement, Beethoven offers us two polarized themes—the peaceful versus the aggressive—with some sections written for strings only and others, including trumpet and kettledrum, touching on the flavor of battle, imitating the guns and canons used in wars of that period.

The third movement begins quietly like a chilly wind blowing, with the cellos and double basses, then picking up the ta-ta-ta-TA motif with the horns. A plucking of the violins creates an eerie silence when all the music seems to go away. Despair pervades. But what eventually emerges is this: a soft kettledrum solo over the long-held notes of the strings and, against a thumping background, the violins rising higher and higher as the basses and timpani snake along. This leads to one of the most extraordinary “darkness to light” transitions in the orchestra literature where, after a lengthy stretch of suspense—an escalation of grandiose orchestral sound joined by piccolo, contrabassoon, and three trombones—the music explodes into the last movement with C-major chords, producing an exuberant celebratory moment that has been described as one of the greatest miracles of Beethoven’s music.

Beethoven, Beethoven's FifthLudwig van Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany, moved to Vienna when he was 21 and lived there until he died in 1827. My father was born in Vienna in 1923. My Polish-born mother lived there from late 1945 to 1947 after escaping World War II. I cannot help but feel a deep connection to a man who had to survive his own wars as a composer battling deafness, and the music that he ultimately produced, revealing once again the enduring power of the human spirit.


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