Date: 22 December 1808
Location: Theater an der Wien
The four notes that open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony have a claim to being the most famous musical motto ever written. ‘Fate knocking at the door’, is how Beethoven is reported to have described the theme to his secretary and (not entirely reliable) biographer, Anton Schindler.
It took, however, a little time for this symphony’s genius to be recognised. Premiered at the infamous Theatre an der Wien concert of 1808, one reviewer described the piece as ‘large, very protracted, overlong’, and in general it elicited little comment. It took an endorsement from the Allgemein musikalische Zeitung a year later to kickstart its popularity.
An anonymous reviewer, who turned out to be the influential poet, novelist and composer ETA Hofmann, described in ecstatic language the music’s effect, including ‘glowing beams [that] shoot through this realm’s deep night.’
Commissioned by Count Oppersdorff, Beethoven started to sketch ideas for the Fifth in 1805 as a follow-up to the Eroica, but set it aside to write what became the Fourth. The bulk of the work ended up taking place in 1807-1808; it was written alongside the Sixth Symphony, with which it was premiered, and also the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven’s Fifth, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
under Daniel Barenboim at the 2012 BBC Proms
That concerto opens with the same rhythmic motto, but its mood couldn’t be more different. While the concerto opens in complete serenity, in G major, the Fifth is in Beethoven’s turbulent key of C minor. Over its four movements, a remarkable tragedy-to-triumph trajectory is traced. Even more striking is how Beethoven uses his opening motif to construct a taut first movement in which the motto is heard in nearly every bar.
The Andante con moto shares something of the Sixth Symphony’s sunny nature, while the Scherzo has a suspenseful sense of mystery. It segues into the blazing C major finale, a brilliantly-handled passage revealing Beethoven to be a master of transitions.
And while it wasn’t completely new to link the final two movements, Beethoven came up with the original idea of recalling the scherzo in the finale, with delicate strings and then assorted wind stilling, momentarily, the full force of the orchestra.
Even more influential was the extra-long coda, ending with a sequence hammering home a victorious C major. This shift of emphasis towards the end of the symphony, turning it into an overall journey, was an idea that composers played with for years to come – think of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Brahms’s First or any of Bruckner’s symphonies.
Voted in at No. 3 in BBC Music Magazine’s list of The 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time, this Carlos Kleiber performance has a compelling intensity and electric energy that is utterly suited to the emotional world of the Fifth Symphony. Kleiber didn’t often go into the recording studio, but when he did the results were entirely unforgettable, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on blistering form here.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
Deutsche Grammophon 447 4002
Words by Rebecca Franks. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.