Beethoven and the 5th Symphony

vectorized old engraving of the Ludwig van Beethoven (from "Meyers Konversations Lexikon" Leipzig und Wien 1904)

I used to live in Ankara, the capital and bureaucratic city of Turkey; amide Anatolia. Kızılay is the city center and hub for trading activities and transportation for the city centre. I had been taking “dolmuş” from Kızılay to my neighborhood, Ayrancı.

The journey with metallic blue minibus was around 15 minutes, mostly accompanied by my earphones and city landscapes, the duration was suitable with two movements of a concerto or a symphony, depending on the particular piece and composer.

I always choose sonatas over symphonies; even though I do not have a interest in symphonies, I always enjoy the provocative first movement 'Allegro con brio' of Beethoven's fifth symphony. Everybody knows this piece through its beginning motif with “short-short-short-long”: “ta ta ta taa!” thanks to the appropriations made with popular culture and classical music. Yet it might be less likely that people know its story and history. So, we are familiar with the symphony, are we also aware of how the fifth symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven has been composed and spread all around the world?

Even though I always tend not to rely on history books and resources, I may have to first demonstrate historical records to understand Beethoven and his musical capabilities. Was born in German town Bonn in 1770, had Flemish ancestry, he brought the unicity of Northern Brabant to Germanic lands, then moved to Vienna to experience his music career there. Understanding the Fifth Symphony requires the examination of his predecessor and successor pieces as well: Beethoven's musicality as a whole.

As his emergence in terms of musicality, one would classify Beethoven as Late-classical and Pre-romantic, obviously he contributed a lot for the transition from Classical to Romantic period of Western classical music.

He managed to contain classical musical ideas with attachment of romantic musical delights either simultaneously or in different times in his career. He also had different styles of creativeness in his own life, as Grout describes, initially Beethoven starts with composing music within classical traditions, for instance, as it is in the first and second symphonies, particular sonatas and quartets.

Then, he transited from a Beethoven who was essentially linked to his classical predecessors to a Beethoven who was much more unique and signature musician with the Eroica symphony, the Rasumovsky quartets, from the fourth to eighth symphonies, particular sonatas and concertos.

Furthermore, the latest musical period in his life was the third style period, in which his deafness become more and more prevalent and he composed later pieces in a massive difficulty with decaying hearing capabilities.

Should we glorify the quantity over the quality? Beethoven composed 9 symphonies Haydn composed 100 and Mozart did 50. It has been discussed within the music critics that it is because Beethoven's symphonies are longer than the others, he was struggling with deafness in during his career which made things complicated and tougher than ever . Also, these circumstances might be accompanied by low self-confidence and self-worthlessness, because according to some personal notes and letters, he was expecting himself too much with comparing himself with Haydn and Mozart not only in terms of the quantity of the pieces that they composed, but also in a way that they emerged in the history of music.

“The energy breaks forth also as humor – not the playfulness of Haydn nor the grace of Mozart, but something more robust and hearty, something which in certain cases may be understood as romantic irony.”

“Beethoven was not a spontaneously inspired composer like Schubert. He was type that begins with a theme; makes it germinal idea, and upon that constructs a musical work, day after day, in painstaking fashion.”

despite the fact that his struggle in terms of self-doubt and deafness, he maintained to compose, and thus, according to the records from personal notes and letters, he composed the fourth, the fifth and the sixth symphony at the same time; between 1806 and 1808, his second musical period – in which Grout describes as “exceptional time of productivity”.

On the fourth and the fifth symphonies:

“The two works in contrast, as though Beethoven wished to express simultaneously two opposite of feeling. Joviality and humor mark the Fourth Symphony, while the Fifth has always been interpreted as the musical projection of Beethoven's resolution “I will grapple with Fate; it shall not overcome me.”

Well known four note motif, repeated in the two introductory bars

So, the fourth symphony in B Flat major is joyful and happy, whereas the fifth in C minor is an aggressive revolt against hardships of life and fate.

The four notes introductory theme also classified later as 'fate motif' could be heard from the different instruments and elements of the orchestra throughout the different movements of the piece but what makes it so special that we are familiar with the piece and reproducing it all the time? Apparently, the well-known motif succeeds the piece in terms of its popularity and there might be several reasons for this. One might be, most importantly, we might be biologically, psychologically and socially adopted to be stimulated by sudden changes, in evolutionary terms, especially by sudden and unexpected tensions in the nature.

Initially, the tempo of the piece is portrayed as 'allegro con brio' – at fast tempo, with strength and spirit. So it is an announcement of aggressive and warrior playing.

The first bar introduces a sudden change and tension in the environment, with the help of unison playing in fortissimo. Then, the tension introduced in the first bar is relaxed with fermata, in which the instrument its original value, mostly in a decaying and halting way. This pattern is followed by exactly the same way in the third and fourth bars. Here, we may also be provoked to seek for a response to a conflict has already been introduced, as we might also be biologically and socially driven to pursue resolutions.

One other reason for the popularity of the piece might be its capacity of reproduction. We all love to reproduce arts for the sake of contemporary motivations. Reproducing the motif and the melody of the Fifth symphony can be relatively easy to be followed by non-experts.

The motif is played by the orchestra in the unison – all of the instruments playing the same melody so there is no need to capture the melody in between the instruments.

Also, it portrays the music through 2/4 common time signature, which is one among the most frequent time signatures in Western classical music.

Basically, the motif offers has non-complex and easy musical ideas. Of course, reproductions of the piece are not only by the orchestras, but also through other ways of arts.

A live disco version of the motif by Walter Murphy: for a visual interpretation of the first movement for the whole movement 'Allegro con brio' of the fifth symphony. You can also follow the release of the tension here:

A very intensive interpretation of the introduction:

Happy birthday Beethoven! Thanks for building this amazing piece.


COPLAND, Aaron (2011), What to Listen for in Music, New York: Penguin Group USA
GROUT, Donald Jay (1973), A History of Western Music, New York: WW Norton & Company Inc.


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