MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 1, SEPTEMBER 2001  
Online Journal


The opening of Beethoven's fifth symphony must be amongst the most dramatic statements in the whole of music. Indeed, some years after its composition, the composer likened its affect to 'fate knocking at the door'. It is strange, then, to note that the London Philharmonic, at their first reading of the work in 1814, broke out in uncontrolled laughter having played only a few bars; such was the novel way in which Beethoven was changing the accepted method of starting a symphony. Further to this, the opening figure seems to lay a fingerprint throughout the rest of the work through a series of subtle rhythmic allusions (for instance, the theme starting at bar 19 of the third movement, or the rhythmic four-note cells that make up the second subject of the fourth (bar 44-46, first violins). However, in his essay on the symphony, Donald Tovey points out that one should be wary of stressing the importance of this figure and its apparent unifying properties, since the same rhythmic figure occurs in the Appassionata piano sonata, the fourth piano concerto and the third movement of the quartet Op.74.

Although completed in 1808, the genesis of the fifth symphony can be traced back through sketchbooks to 1804. Thus, we can see that Beethoven was, during this period, working on several important works concurrently: the period 1804-1808 included both the fourth and sixth symphonies, the opera Fidelio, the Rasoumovsky quartets and the C major mass.

In terms of orchestration, the fifth symphony reserves a number of exciting additions to its forces for the last movement. Here, Beethoven introduces trombones for the first time into a symphonic work; prior to this they had been mainly used in church music (during the Baroque period) and as a dramatic addition to opera scores, such as in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The composer obviously required the last movement to have a stunning impact, blazing with sound to signify the work's transition from its opening minor to a triumphant major finish. Therefore, the most immediately effective way to do this is to expand the brass section. However, two other instruments were added to this last movement to enrich the palette of colours available to the composer; the contrabassoon, which added a thickness to the lower registers of the ensemble (usually doubling the cellos and/or basses), and, at the other end of the spectrum, a piccolo part, which both doubles the flute part and plays independently of it, such as at bars 73-75. These additions gave Beethoven a great orchestral force to work with (especially the brass), and with careful deployment could create a stunning effect, such as the announcement of the motif by the trombones in bars 112-114.

The structure of the last movement is a fairly straightforward sonata form, with several points of interest. Firstly, the first subject, with which the movement begins, is followed at bar 26 by another important theme in the tonic key, and, having subsequently modulated to the dominant key, we get a further two (those at bars 45 and 64), making a total of four themes in the exposition. Further to this, in the development section Beethoven raises the profile of an originally insignificant figure first heard in the cellos at bar 46.4-48.1.

The most surprising structural element to the music occurs at bar 153, where the anticipated return of the first subject does not occur, and is replaced by a dramatic reduction in texture, a change of metre and a passage that recalls the horns' theme from the beginning of the third movement. This method of recalling themes from previous movements was developed throughout the nineteenth century (even as far as Elgar's violin concerto in 1910), but at Beethoven's time was unheard of. Many contemporaries recognised this technique, and Beethoven's use of it here, as a stroke of genius; such an admirer was the composer Spohr, although he considered the symphony as a whole to be defective.

The extended coda, beginning at bar 318, is well over a hundred bars long and includes an amazing build up of excitement after bar 350, including an increase in tempo and change of time signature at bar 362 to propel the work to its conclusion. Beethoven was a master of exploiting his sonata form codas not only to include further development, but also to confirm the resolution of tonality across the structure (see, for example, the first movement of the Eroica Symphony). Finally, the sequence of tonic chords with which the movement crashes to an end is also noticeable because of its length; Beethoven spins this one chord out for twenty nine bars. This is presumably because he wants to emphasise the joyous 'triumph' of the work closing in C major, having begun in a much darker c minor



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