Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, in C Minor

Painting of Ludwig van BeethovenBeethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most popular and best known compositions in all of classical music, indeed one of the landmarks of Western culture. The symphony’s four-note opening motive: “short-short-short-long,” appears frequently in popular culture, from disco to rock and roll, from films to television.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was premiered on 22 December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Soon thereafter E.T.A. Hoffmann hailed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as “one of the most important works of our time.”

The first movement is dominated by the four-note motive described before. Even when a lyrical second theme appears, the four-note motive remains as accompaniment. During the recapitulation there is an oboe solo in quasi-improvisatory style, and the movement ends with a massive coda. The second movement features a lyrical melody introduced by the violas and cellos followed by a second theme in the winds and violins. Variations of these themes appear, leading to a series of crescendos and a coda to close the movement. In the third movement, a scherzo and trio, a soft arching melody in the cellos and basses is answered by a more plaintive theme in the winds. This sequence is repeated and finally the horns loudly announce the main theme of the movement, another variant on the four-note motive from the first movement. The trio section is in C major and is written in contrapuntal texture. The reprise of the scherzo, soft with pizzicato strings, leads to an extended coda which connects directly to the last movement, a triumphant and exhilarating finale in C major. The finale includes a very long coda, as the main themes are temporally compressed and, toward the end, the tempo is increased to Presto. No less than 29 bars of C major chords, played fortissimo, are needed to ground the extreme tension of this immense work.