Review Summary: Timeless.
A man who needs no introduction, Ludwig van Beethoven’s body of work includes some of the most fierce, morose, macabre, and beautiful melodies ever put onto paper. Among his most famous pieces is this, ‘No. 5 in C minor’, which embodies every one of these qualities that substantiates Beethoven as an unmatched virtuoso of his craft. Its opening is fierce; threatening; urgent. The second movement is a stunning orchestral composition played with pulchritudinous elegance, and the final movements close the symphony with hearty bravado and conviction. Beethoven grips your attention right from the start and appeals to your pathos up to the symphony’s final seconds. It’s a timeless piece of music, still referenced in mainstream media and publicly performed regularly by numerous philharmonics – a two-century-old composition that hasn’t aged a day. If that isn’t the sign of a transcendent masterpiece, then I don’t know what is.
The symphony opens with the most famous musical motif ever, and of the many hyperbolic statements you’ll come across in this review, this is not one of them. It is dramatic and tragic – it states its presence with bold condemnation, like a schoolteacher slamming his foot on the wooden floor to silence a room full of children. What makes this motif so iconic is its simplicity. It’s literally four notes played in succession and then the same four-note pattern a whole-step lower. But it’s not the pattern itself that makes it iconic – it’s the tension it creates. The suspenseful tenuto of every note, stretching the end of each phrase and yearning for the subsequent silence before the second pattern commences. These subtleties, performed by a full orchestra at fortissimo no less, can turn any human soul into complete submission. Beethoven commands your attention, and he’ll get it; and this all takes place within the first ten seconds.
It’s also worth noting that ‘Symphony No. 5’ is Beethoven’s only symphony that was deliberately written to be taken in as a whole. This is not to say his other works should be judged on a movement-by-movement basis; ‘No. 5’ just happens to be the only symphony that treats itself as one sinuous, grandiose piece. Musical ideas from the first movements are recapitulated in the finale Allegro
and each movement flows into the next seamlessly akin to watching a feature film. Themes are repeated and hinted at throughout; motifs are tampered with to befit the various settings in which they’re used; the movements stream into one another like weaves on a mosaic tapestry; and everything comes together on IV. Allegro
, which modulates to C major to suit its epic theatrical dénouement. Despite the piece being largely written in the minor key, Beethoven himself justified this anomaly by stating: “Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! ...Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain.” What an appropriate turn of phrase to describe the symphony’s triumphant conclusion.
The end of the symphony marks a moment of resolution and ease, as if a weighty burden is finally lifted off your shoulders. Much like tapering off an adrenaline rush, the symphony releases you from a state of excitement and tension, allowing you to breathe slowly and think rationally again, but cravings of that intense high will stick with you long after. Yes, technically I just compared ‘Symphony No. 5’ to a drug, and it’s really the only tangible comparison I can make. The sensation stays in your system long after and it provokes the same exultant experience each time you listen to it. It’s timeless in its fundamental sense. Once that first gargantuan motif meets your ears there’s no turning back; it’s branded into your psyche. This composition technique of bleak elation and charismatic dread is what allowed Beethoven to transcend past the notes on the page into the immortal classical icon that he is, and ‘Symphony No. 5’ was only one of many. Music was never the same again.
Daniel Barenboim & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan & the Berliner Philharmoniker