Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical #48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50
#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven is most widely known for this symphony. Everyone in Western Culture has heard of or knows what the dun dun dun daaah means. For me, this symphony still stands as my favorite of his on the strength of the first movement alone. This isn’t to say the other three movements are not masterful or worth listening to. They are. The whole symphony is a masterpiece in design and creation with a full journey taken through all four movements. This symphony is also the first one to include trombones in a symphonic work. They come blasting in at the start of the fourth movement.
It’s the first movement that most interests me because it is such a lean, crisp, masterpiece of art. Beethoven uses sonata-form (which has an exposition that starts the piece typically with two contrasting themes, followed by a development section where the composer explores other keys with the two themes before returning to a recapitulation of the exposition with some variety), as was the standard for first movements in symphonies, and he has the exposition repeated, which was typical in the classical and romantic eras. The first four notes are an introduction, repeated dropping to the fifth. The primary theme begins immediately after the fermata with the four note motive passed around the instruments in a fugue. As this symphony is in C minor, the secondary theme comes in on the relative major, the Eb, and is a soft flowing counterpoint to the harsh primary theme. What Beethoven does with these two themes in the development and recapitulation is what makes this movement so amazing, even when so overplayed. In the recapitulation, he gives the oboe this gorgeous solo that stands out against the harsh strings, almost like a plea against the inexorable hammers of fate. The secondary theme is repeated again, and then we head toward a conclusion that reiterates the four note theme repeated hundreds of times everywhere in an intense explosion that hammers home the inevitability and inexorability of fate.
It took Beethoven four years to compose this symphony, from 1804-08, and its compositional history is tied to world events, particularly the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1805. Beethoven originally composed his Third Symphony with a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, because he felt Napoleon embodied the true spirit of the French Revolution against kings and tyrants. However, as soon as Beethoven realized Napoleon would crown himself emperor, he removed the dedication.
The four note motive actually has an interesting inception. Matthew Guerrieri wrote a whole book called “The First Four Notes” about the history behind just those four notes. It turns out the motive comes from a bird! Guerrieri quotes Carl Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven, “Many of Beethoven’s motives resulted from passing outside impressions and events,” Czerny recalled. “The song of a forest-bird (the yellowhammer) gave him the theme of the C-minor symphony, and those who heard him fantasize on it know what he was able to develop from the most insignificant few tones.” (pg. 20). Guerrieri makes another connection to the motive, and that is to French revolutionary music, specifically La Marseillaise, which begins with short triplet beats leading to a long beat. As Beethoven was fascinated with the French revolutionary period, one could surmise a connection, but I feel it’s more coincidental, especially since the C-minor symphony takes such a dark tone with the motive compared to La Marseillaise.
My favorite recording of the symphony comes from Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, much like the Coriolan Overture. However, there is no video of that performance, so I’m going to share another prominent recording that takes the right tempo for the symphony. This is Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Munch doesn’t repeat the exposition, but he can be forgiven in this case, because he takes the right tone with the whole symphony. Enjoy!