Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 5

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 30–35 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1807/1808
World Premiere: December 22, 1808 (Vienna)

Table of Contents

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in 5 Sentences

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written and, along with Symphonies No. 3 and No. 9, the most important Beethoven symphony in the history of music. Probably everyone has come into contact with the famous opening motif at least once (see below, “Highlight 1”). In the Romantic period, numerous interpretations of this motif and of the entire symphony were undertaken, which may have contributed significantly to the dissemination of the work: catch phrases include “fate motif,” “knocking motif,” “the knocking of fate at the door,” and many more. Especially remarkable are Beethoven’s consistent processing technique in the first movement as well as the dramaturgy of the work (“per aspera ad astra”).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5

Highlight 1: Opening motif

From the rather neutral term “knocking motive” to the dramatic “knocking of fate,” this world-famous motive has had numerous interpretations. To avoid the many ideological pitfalls, I usually simply call it “opening motif.” There is no question about it: in its brevity and drama, it ensures that one is immediately drawn into the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth:

Highlight 2: a prayer

The second movement begins with a sweeping chant from the low strings. There is something so “speaking” about the music here that this passage has been interpreted as a prayer on several occasions (including by distinguished performers such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt):

Highlight 3: Transition from the 3rd to the 4th movement

For me, this is one of the most overwhelming passages in Beethoven’s work ever: there is no separation between the third and fourth movements, instead Beethoven composes a transition that begins in darkness and virtually explodes with brightness with the beginning of the final movement:

Highlight 4: radiant finale

The last movement is a victory song:

3 Questions and Answers about Beethoven's Symphony No. 5

Question 1: What is special about the 5th Symphony?

There are two aspects in particular that are special about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: first, the ubiquity of the famous opening motif in the first movement; second, the dramaturgical layout (“per aspera ad astra”).

Question 2: Where was Beethoven's 5th Symphony first performed?

The premiere took place in the Theater an der Wien.

Question 3: Was the premiere of Beethoven's 5th Symphony successful?

According to contemporary reports, the premiere of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was not very successful. However, it took place under adverse circumstances (short rehearsal time, war, unheated concert hall). Only in the course of the following decades did Beethoven’s 5th Symphony become as popular as it is today.

2 Recommended Recordings of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5

Recording 1: hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (live, 2016)

Just like all recordings with the hr-Sinfonieorchester and Andrés Orozco-Estrada, this one is just bursting with energy. For Beethoven’s Fifth, that’s exactly fitting:

Recording 2: Concertgebouworkest, Iván Fischer (live, 2019)

This recording with the Concertgebouworkest and Iván Fischer is suitable for all those who, with Orozco-Estrada’s rakish tempo choices, no longer know where up and down is. Fischer remains more on the conventional side with the tempi, but that does not detract from the quality of this recording:

1 Quote about Beethoven's Symphony No. 5

Undoubtedly the most famous of all and also, in our opinion, the first in which Beethoven gave free rein to his broad imagination without taking an alien idea for guidance or support.

Hector Berlioz on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

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