Music I Love: “Symphony no. 5”, Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)

bee5_1_mThis is one my favorite works of music. Before you decry it as an obvious choice, let me point out that there is a lot more to this symphony than meets the ear. Aside from the obvious popularity of the opening movement, there is a lot to be enjoyed in the remaining three, including some musical moments that are, essentially, groundbreaking.

Nearly everything Ludwig van Beethoven composed is simply genius (I say nearly – I’m not all that fond of the cello sonatas), but in his early works he tends to stick to the tried and true forms of the classical era. He deviates, pushes the boundaries, but his first four symphonies, the multitude of piano sonatas, and even the violin concerto, still retain obvious and strong connections to the classical stoicism of the past.

So what makes the fifth symphony, written in 1808, so different? The first movement is in a nearly textbook sonata form; the second is a kind of theme and variation; the third a straight scherzo; the fourth a massive but unmistakable rondo. Structurally, there is little here to suggest anything that would upheave the musical dogma for everything to come.

Yet it’s usually accepted that Beethoven forms the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras; Mozart and Haydn before, Schubert and Mendelssohn after. But at what point can we say that Beethoven was a Romantic composer, and not a Classical one?

Often it’s considered the ninth symphony, with its sprawling themes and instrumental excess, but for me I feel like it traces back to his fifth symphony. The main reason for this is not because of his structure, or indeed his themes, which are (the second movement aside) hardly lyrical. It is because of the emotional drama that he infuses every single note of the symphony with. From the first notes, starting on a weak beat (beat 2.5 out of 4, as it were) yet played with immense force, to the intense finale with its pounding C major arpeggio, the symphony drags the listener into a maelstrom of violent and tempestuous musical material, and doesn’t let go until the clamorous final notes, a single enormous C major chord stretched to infinity.

Though emotion was not anathema to Baroque and Classical composers, it was handled with restraint. Even Mozart’s final symphony, one of the most ingenious and complex pieces he ever wrote, doesn’t linger on any one theme, and moves on throughout its movements with poise and dignity, but never with untamed, rampant joy. Beethoven’s fifth symphony, however, oozes emotion, a roller coaster of joy and fury, of exuberance and despair.

It is this, more than its structure, that t0 me marks the turning point between the Classical and the Romantic eras. Even the most sophisticated Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mahler still made use of classic sonata, binary, minuet and trio, and rondo forms; it was emotion that these composers sought to infuse their music with. To me, this is the first time a composer did so on such a grand scale.

Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

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