Friday, October 22, 1993 - 7:30 p.m.
LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
SYMPHONY No.5 in C MINOR, Op. 67
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1808
The most famous opening in the history of music (da-da-da-DAH!) was first heard just before midnight in an unheated concert hall in the middle of a particularly bad Viennese winter; it was noted that the sound of the audience stamping their feet to keep warm was louder than the orchestra at times. The last item but one on the program was a very loud and very long piano improvisation by the now-deaf Beethoven, who railed at the slow trickle of patrons into the icy blackness outside as his meanderings passed the 40-minute mark and 1 a.m. loomed. The orchestra, conducted (sort of) by the composer, were sight-reading, and Beethoven couldn’t hear them anyway; it was a minor miracle that there was only one stop and restart.
Despite this shaky beginning, the Symphony was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by Beethoven’s friend E.T.A. Hoffmann, who sat through the entire proceedings in a mountainous fur coat that made him look like a hideously obese bear, only prevented from eating his neighbors by the inspiration of “this indescribably profound, magnificent Symphony.” Hoffmann, himself an amateur composer of some skill, knew what he was talking about, and the world listened. The symphony was already sufficiently famous to launch the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural concert in 1847.
But what is that opening? It seems so portentous that it must “mean” something. According to his friend Anton Schindler, Beethoven himself declared it to be “Fate knocking at the door,” but Schindler has been caught so many times forging his hero’s aphorisms (parts of Beethoven’s supposed diaries are in Schindler’s handwriting), that this needs to be distrusted. Just as likely, if weirder, is Anton Czerny’s suggestion that what we are hearing is the song of a yellowhammer that inhabited a tree by Beethoven’s favorite spot in Vienna’s Prater park. This is not quite as preposterous as it might seem. The symphony was written simultaneously with its successor, the Pastoral, which contains an ostentatiously ornithological passage for nightingale, quail and cuckoo, so a feathered inspiration for the Fifth is not entirely impossible. On the other hand, the three Pastoral birds are never heard together in nature, and Beethoven was deaf. Choose your own myth.
What is certain, however, is that the short-short-short-long motif haunts the entire symphony, a structural device that Beethoven learned from Haydn. In the first movement – otherwise a very conventional sonata structure – it is present almost as an ostinato throughout the movement; one of the reasons for the otherwise inexplicable oboe cadenza near the end is to break this pattern for a moment.
The near-total absence (listen very carefully near the end) of the motif in the second movement and its “wrong” key (the unrelated A flat) points at the movement having been pulled from the drawer to meet a deadline, and this does indeed seem to be the case. The subject of this theme and variations began life in an abandoned piano sonata.
The dark and very unfunny Scherzo (Italian for “joke”) has rather more surprising origins. The manuscript of the movement has a fragment from the finale of Mozart’s 40th Symphony scrawled in the margin; Beethoven lifts its first subject wholesale for his Scherzo, then beats it about the head with his Fate (or Yellowhammer) motif before descending into a muted harmonic fog that will only lift with the arrival of the Finale. Mozart and Beethoven settle their differences somewhere in the murk.
The Finale follows without a break – one of the symphony’s real innovations. This movement also marks the first significant appearance of trombones in a classical symphony – and makes this the first symphony to begin in one key (C minor) and end in another (C major). Theoretically, these are unrelated keys, though musical common sense indicates otherwise. As Beethoven himself wrote, in a note scribbled in the notebook he used to converse with his friends:
“The major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”
Sunshine, in this case, consists of 29 (count them) measures of C major chords. These are also the identical 29 last measures of Cherubini’s Elisa, a favorite of Beethoven’s. Again, the subtext of the symphony turns out to be not Beethoven’s conflict with “fate,” but with his forebears.
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