Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

This is the most famous, most successful symphony ever written and there is a lot of competition! Along with the Symphony No. 9, its only serious competitor for "most famous" symphony and the "Moonlight" Sonata, also by Beethoven, it is the very paradigm for a piece of classical music.

Why is this? Certain characteristics of the music were noticed by E. T. A. Hoffman very early on in 1813, only five years after the premiere. He wrote:
The internal structure of the movements, their execution, their instrumentation, the way in which they follow one another--everything contributes to a single end; above all, it is the intimate interrelationship among the themes that engenders that unity which alone has the power to hold the listener firmly in a single mood.
The whole symphony grows, like an oak, from this single seed:

Those four notes, in that distinctive rhythm, first on the tonic (C minor) and then on the dominant seventh (G7) are the essence of the whole work, on both the micro and macro levels. It was this that was Beethoven's great discovery: how to dramatically unify in an organic way, the whole of a lengthy instrumental composition. Even though every composer since has tried to duplicate this success, hardly any have succeeded. Though it is safe to say that anyone writing a large instrumental work is likely to be using some of the techniques Beethoven discovered.

This motif, even when reduced to a simple rhythm, permeates the whole symphony. It even functions as an accompaniment to the second theme when it appears. Let's look at the page of the score where the second theme is presented for some examples:

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Here we have the ending of the previous section and notice how Beethoven beams the violins to bring out the rhythmic motif. That is in the first four measures of the example. Then we have the horns with a variation on the motif and the second theme begins in the violins in mm. 63. But notice also how the same rhythmic motif appears in the cellos. Here is another example from where the theme of the Scherzo returns in the last movement where both the melody and accompaniment feature the motif;

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Notice that the oboes have a theme very similar to the horn theme in my second example above. Then the clarinets have the same rhythm as an accompaniment, joined by the horns. Other examples, perhaps less significant, have been found. There are even some critics, including Donald Francis Tovey, who disagree that the symphony is unified in this way. I hate to disagree, but the reasons he gives, for example, that the last example has no relationship to the original motif because the accents are in a different place does not convince me. What I see here are a 'family' of rhythmic motifs that share certain similarities. Shostakovich was another who made use of this kind of structuring. Many of his string quartets use a characteristic anapest or dactyl to tie together various movements.

There are hints of the rhythmic motif in the second movement, but it also permeates the last movement, though in a subtle way. Let's take a look at part of the last movement for some examples:

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Take a look at the first violins from the 4th measure of the example: the eighth-note line is segmented in  sections of three upbeats to a downbeat all the way up to the high C. This may not look quite like the motif, but again, it will sound like a member of the same family. Look too at the cellos and basses who are stressing the same grouping. It is the way the notes are grouped that is creating the effect.

Another very significant element in the symphony is the tonal structure. The whole "story arc" is one of movement from darkness (C minor) to light (C major). This structure, which may owe a bit to the opening of Haydn's Creation, arrives at the moment of light as the last movement begins. The Scherzo ends with a long, long sustained dominant harmony. The fact that the dominant of C minor and the dominant of C major are exactly the same chord allows the blaze of C major (aided by the use of trombones for added power) to be both entirely logical harmonically, but at the same time unexpected. This moment is one of the greatest and most powerful moments in Western music.

After all that introduction, let's listen to the whole symphony. This is the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Paavo Jarvi:

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