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9. Beethoven – Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, I. Allegro con brio

June 16, 2011

It’s not hard to break the rules and try to be original, and see what you can come up with. It’s a bit harder to break the rules, be taken seriously, and have people following you on your new ideas.

It’s far rarer, perhaps once-in-a-century, to break the rules, become the new standard, and have people still measuring themselves against your ideas 75 years after you died. Beethoven kind of did this. Really.

Ludwig van Beethoven (BAY-toe-ven) was born in Germany in 1770, and lived until 1827. To much consensus, he was the most influential composer who has ever lived – he single-handedly opened the way for the Romantic Era in classical music, by infusing new ideals into the existing forms that he inherited from the Classical Era (as were idealized in Mozart).

One main area that he did this in was in the genre of the symphony. Firstly, a symphony is a work for an orchestra, typically written in 4 movements, and with further conventions on the nature of each of the 4 movements. Haydn wrote 104 of them, and Mozart wrote 41. Beethoven wrote only 9, but in those few, he redefined what the symphony could be, and ultimately, all symphonists to come would have to contend with the new standard that Beethoven set. We’ll look at one of the two most famous of his symphonies, the one which begins with perhaps the most famous four notes in all of classical music. This one deserves a more detailed analysis.

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, I. Allegro con brio (Fast, with fire)

[0:21] Arturo Toscanini was one of the iconic conductors of the early 20th century, and I can’t think of any other phrase in classical music that is nearly as iconic as this 4-note statement. Throughout this movement, listen for how Beethoven takes this idea, repeats it, puts it in different places, turns it around, transforms it, extracts more and more out of it. You could say that this entire movement is built around this one simple building block.

[1:07] A French horn announces the start of a contrasting section, formally known as the 2nd theme of the expostion section. It’s brighter and more lyrical, compared with the stormy and serious opening. Listen carefully for the recurring short-short-short-long in the lower strings, that little rumble underneath the lyrical stuff. And then, the 4-note motif by the whole orchestra brings us to a clear end of this section at [1:45].

[1:50] The French horns again announce a new section, but with a different “attitude” than last time. In sonata form (a convention that this movement is structured in), the section that follows the exposition is the development section. This is where things get interesting, where material from the exposition gets transformed in more new ways. It starts out similarly with the upper strings, but then starts to deviate and “explore” further out than before.

[2:24] The violins restate the french horn theme from [1:07].

[2:35] A big “conversation” between strings and woodwinds/brass. If you trace it, Beethoven is using a reduced form of the [1:07] french horn theme, just pulling out the 2 “middle” notes. And then, he reduces it down to 1 note. And wow, listen to what he can do with so little – Beethoven could be remarkably efficient with his “materials.”

[2:55] Sudden spikes and drops in volume like this have Beethoven written all over them. Beethoven had kind of an angry, impulsive personality, and it’s theorized that he may have had bipolar disorder. If this is not too much of cheap pop psychology, maybe this feature is a manifestation of his serious mood swing-iness.

[3:03] Closing the development section with the 4-note motif again, Beethoven brings us into a recapitulation section, which will be similar to the exposition, but with some amount of differences.

[3:28] An odd little feature of this movement, and one that turned heads – a mini-cadenza by the oboe.

[4:00] The recapitulation section often has the 2nd theme again, in a different key (or “color”).

[4:44] So it sounds like it should start to wind down here, but Beethoven launches us into another round of closing development. This is called the coda, and Beethoven is is largely credited for making this coda section a prominent idea in usage of sonata form.

[5:45] One last time before it’s over. And keep listening for the 4-note motif.

[6:07] No applause between movements, even if the ending is exciting! Hold applause until all 4 movements are complete. Those who clap are noobs and will be subject to shushing.

A mini-recap of Sonata form:

1. Exposition – primary theme portion, followed by secondary theme portion
2. Development – can go all over the place
3. Recapitulation – primary and secondary themes, with some differences
4. Coda – like a shorter second development section, which ends the movement

Next: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 “Pathétique”


From → Guided Tours

  1. Great article! I’m very much into music analysis for the average person – I think it adds alot to the enjoyment of music, especially Beethoven and music from that period. I did a few rundowns myself on my own blog as well, check it out if you get the chance :)

    The Daily Beethoven

  2. Kim permalink

    Great study!!

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