Work: Symphony no 5
About This Work
Beethoven worked on the Fifth Symphony for more than four years, completing it in 1808, and introducing it on December 22 of that year at what must have been one of the most extraordinary concerts in history. The marathon program included the Fifth
and Sixth Symphonies; the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80; the Fourth Piano Concerto; and parts of the Mass in C. Vienna was in the grip of exceptionally cold weather, the hall was unheated, and the musicians woefully under-prepared. As Schindler noted, "the reception accorded to these works was not as desired, and probably no better than the author himself had expected. The public was not endowed with the necessary degree of comprehension for such extraordinary music, and the performance left a great deal to be desired."
Following early indifference, the public only gradually began to come to terms with the Fifth. One of its earliest proponents, the poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote, "How this magnificent composition carries the listener on and on in a continually ascending climax into the ghostly world of infinity!...the human breast, squeezed by monstrous presentiments and destructive powers, seems to gasp for breath; soon a kindly figure approaches full of radiance, and illuminates the depths of terrifying night." In his Howard's End, E.M. Forster writes of the work, suggesting that it satisfies "all sort and conditions." The characters of Helen and Tibby know the work well, the latter even describing "the transitional passage on the drum" before the finale. That Forster dwelt at such length on the work shows the extent to which it had become absorbed into the Romantic consciousness.
Hermann Kretzschmar wrote of the "stirring dogged and desperate struggle" of the first movement, one of the most concentrated of all Beethoven's symphonic sonata movements. It is derived almost exclusively from the rhythmic cell of the opening, which is even felt in the accompaniment of the second subject group. There follows a variation movement in which cellos introduce the theme, increasingly elaborated and with shorter note values at every reappearance. A second, hymn-like motif is heard as its counterfoil.
The tripartite scherzo follows; the main idea is based on an ominous arpeggio figure, but we hear also the omnipresent "Fate" rhythm, exactly as it is experienced in the first movement. The central section, which replaces the customary trio, is a pounding fugato beginning in the cellos and basses, and then running through the rest of the orchestra. Of particular structural interest is the inter-linking bridge passage which connects the last two movements. Over the drumbeat referred to by Forster's Tibby, the music climbs inexorably toward the tremendous assertion of C major triumph at the start of the finale. The epic grandeur of the music, now with martial trombones and piccolo added (the Fifth also calls for contrabassoon), has irresistible drive and sweep, though that eventual victory is still some way off is suggested by the return of the ominous scherzo figure during the extended development.
-- Michael Jameson, All Music Guide
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