Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)

Course Description
As one of the most popular and well-known symphonies in history, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony marked the high point of his "heroic" period as a composer. This presentation examines the ways in which the famous four-note motif that begins the symphony in darkness and despair is set against more optimistic motifs that create a conflict running throughout the symphony. The reconciliation of this conflict provides the narrative of this musical masterwork.

Christian Thielemann conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker

  • First Movement – begins at 0:55
  • Second Movement – begins at 8:30
  • Third Movement – begins at 19:30
  • Fourth Movement – begins at 25:16
General Information
  • The Fifth Symphony made Beethoven famous in his own time and introduced Beethoven to audiences outside his own country. For over 200 years, the Fifth Symphony has remained an icon of classical music.
  • According to Anton Schindler, Beethoven's friend and personal secretary, Beethoven pointed to the first four notes on the score of the Fifth Symphony and said, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!" Although the truth and the significance of that story is much in doubt, the symphony has generally been described in those terms for over 200 years. The symphony is normally described as a movement from darkness (fate knocking on the door) to light, from despair to exultation. (Beethoven told one of his students, Carl Czerny, that the idea for the first four notes came from a yellow-hammer bird he heard singing in a Vienna park.)
  • Beethoven was the first composer of significance to use piccolos and trombones in a symphony, both of which are used to great effect in the fourth movement of the Fifth Symphony. A prominent composer of the time, Louis Spohr, denounced Beethoven for the use of those two instruments, calling them "disreputable."
  • The Fifth Symphony was first performed on December 22, 1808, at a concert in Vienna consisting entirely of new works by Beethoven. The audience at that concert heard the first performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6, Piano Concerto No. 4, three movements from the Mass in C major, and the Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.
  • Beethoven began work on his Fifth Symphony as a follow-up to his Third Symphony, which premiered before a private audience in 1804. He worked on the Fifth from 1804-1808, interrupting his work to compose his Fourth Symphony, his Violin Concerto, his Fourth Piano Concerto, and continue work on his Sixth Symphony, which he began in 1802.
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