Last updated August 27, 2018.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor (“Fate”), Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven (composer)
First Performed: December 22, 1808
Average Duration: 32:50
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is “one of the most popular and best-known compositions in all of classical music, and one of the most often played symphonies.” AZ The poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffman called it “one of the most important works of the time.” AZ The symphony consists of four movements: “an opening sonata, an andante, and a fast scherzo which leads attacca to the finale.” AZ Beethoven toiled away for more than four years to compose it, finally introducing it on December 22, 1808 in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.
Also included in the program were Symphony No. 6, Piano Concerto No. 4, and parts of his Mass in C. MJ While it might be considered “one of the most extraordinary concerts in history,” MJ it also should be noted that “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.’” MJ
However, “the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterwards.” AZ Hoffman 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.” MJ
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster writes about the symphony, saying it satisfies “all sort and conditions.” MJ The fact that he focuses heavily on the work “shows the extent to which it had become absorbed into the Romantic consciousness.” MJ
“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.” MJ
“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.” MJ