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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Tales of Despair: The Music that Ended his Life

All great composers have died in despair, whether they saw fame in their lives or not. They have died deaf, they have died blind, they have died young and old, rich and poor. In times past their music lay forgotten, and they themselves were left behind, pop artists of the past, ever replaceable.

This man died some long time ago, and his was a tragedy beyond most. He passed, throughout his life, from jubilant exaltedness to raging despair, writing a phenomenal number of works, doubting himself at every one. As he grew older he grew beyond his time and his world, and the music that he wrote for himself – for he rarely had the grace to write other than at others’ commissions – was unpleasing to his listeners. His most successful works during his life were stupefying inanity, poor jokes written for great men of little intellect.

Paraded as a child, he spent little time at any one home, and the racing of his travels fostered a miserable wanderlust in him, an inability to settle for the rest of his life. Drawn away from his mother for great periods, he became hypochondriacal, eventually taking to self-medicating with antimony. He was only twenty-two when his mother died, and was thrown into grief from which he never recovered; he was by now so poor that they didn’t even have the money to call a doctor, something that would haunt him for the rest of his short life.

For nearly a decade, he moved from job to job, never able to settle or to find an income that would support he and his family, which now included his wife and their children. Even in his familial life he was not free from grief and despair; the couple watched in hopeless horror as their first child lived for only two months. They produced a healthy boy not long after, but his future siblings lived, all but one, not more than six months. While it is one type of horror for a child to die after birth, as did their daughter, Anna, it is of a deeper grief entirely to raise a child for six months, watch them grow, sit, smile and laugh – and then have that child taken from you just as you thought the worst was past. Their final child together, Franz, lived to adulthood, but he would never know – he would only know this boy for four months.

His father died when he was thirty-one, and he was suddenly the head of his family and of his home, and was without a job, without money and without hope. Sometimes he would produce a work that was taken with success; this would be followed by great periods of utter poverty. Near the end of his life he grew increasingly ill, suffering from malnutrition, poisonous medication and anxiety, and he grew paranoid of all those around him. When he was asked to write a piece commemorating the death of a wife of a person he had never met, he labored over the score in his illness and grew ever worse.

His wife, seeing his despair, begged him to cease writing such dreadful music, and for a time he ceased, and as his despair lifted, so did his health. It was not to last, however – whether from over-enthusiasm at the prospect of regaining a little of his health, or a fractured mind bent on his destruction, we shall never know, but in his final months he turned back to the writing of this requiem – and died before he could complete it.

It was eventually completed by one of his students, and performed at a benefit concert for his widow. He would never know, buried in a common grave, but he was to rise in renown within a very short period, and even those works of his that were spurned became famous. His wife would remarry, though he heart remained always with him; she and her second husband, whom she would also outlive, worked together to write his biography. It would have been of comfort to him, certainly, to know that his wife and children were not to die in the terrible circumstances he had left them in, and that both of his sons would receive one of the best musical educations of the time.

He would have been equally proud, no doubt, could he have known that the unthanked labour of his short life would one day rank among the most celebrated music in the world, performed, heard and loved to this day. It is unquestioned, still, that his Requiem remained his crowning achievement.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)