Sunday, November 27, 2005


Beethoven: Symphony No.5

In passing from his Fourth Symphony to the Fifth (C minor, Op.67, finished in 1808) , Beethoven's mood undergoes a complete change. It is the first one of his Symphonies for which he chose the minor mode, and its spirit is correspondingly stern., somber and passionate---in all but the final Movement. This is particularly true of the first and third Movements. But even the tender slow Movement has emotional moments that alternate like shadows with the prevailing brightness. The Finale is a monument of symphonic breadth and might.

It is not easy to speak dispassionately and with beseeming moderation of this wonderful Symphony of Beethoven. Viewed calmly and fairly, from every angle, it cannot be called his greatest Symphony; for his genius matured steadily, and there are qualities in his last three Symphonies which pertain to a more elevated plane of artistic creation than does this Fifth one. What lends this one its irresistible appeal, is its elemental power, and its inherent simplicity; its architectural plan unfolds so naturally, so consistently, with such unfaltering logic, such clearness and sureness of purpose, and in such straightforward, powerful strokes, that the responsive hearer is thrilled with satisfaction and enjoyment from the first tone to the last.

The structural scheme of the first Movement (sonata-allegro form) is extremely concise; no time is wasted on gallant concessions. There is no Introduction. The harmonic basis is strikingly simple, consisting very largely of the plain tonic and dominant chords. The modulations are of telling effect, but not extreme---the most striking appear in the series of remote keys near the end of the Development---in the "solid" rhythm of the subordinate Theme.

The first Movement is a miracle of motive development, such as only a Beethoven could perform. There is scarcely a single measure in the entire course of the Movement that does not owe its origin to, and is not derived directly from, the motive of the opening four measures---with chiefly rhythmic alterations. Thus, the subordinate Theme corresponds, at its outset, to this principal motive; the eighth-notes in its third measure are suppressed, with the result of a more solid rhythm of half notes, and at the same time the intervals are widened, thus adding emphasis to the rhythmic change.

For the second Movement---an indescribably beautiful Lyric contemplative mood, with powerful contrasts---Beethoven chooses the First Rondo-form; at least, this most nearly indicates his structural intention. But it is treated with much latitude: the frequent repetitions and recurrences of the melodious principal Theme are variated---analogously to the scheme of the Finale of the Eroica Symphony; and there is no more than a barely recognizable intimation of a subordinate Theme. The discrepancy, sometimes slight but often very marked, between a musical idea as it was first engendered in Beethoven's mind, and the same idea after his rigorous testing had brought it to the perfected shape suited to its thematic purpose. Procuring and consulting Beethoven's Sketchbooks (edited by M.G. Nottebohm) one will discover many illuminating proofs of this remodeling and refining process of the master. Some of the original sketches of this Fifth Symphony reach back to the years 1800 and 1801.

Beethoven calls the third Movement a Scherzo; but it is of a deeply serious character, with a weird background of veiled apprehensiveness pierced at intervals with flashes of mysterious menace, later on hushed to a tense, broken, whispered utterance. The principal Division is in Three-Part form---five Parts, with the repetition of Parts II and III. The first and second of these present two widely different but equally important thematic shapes, the first ominous, almost foreboding, the second in oracular in tone. Note the rhythmic analogy between this oracular second Part, and the first motive of the first Movement. The Trio is sometimes cited as a specimen of Beethoven's humor; and there is doubtless a touch of the grotesque in the rapid passage for the lumbering double-basses, during the first Phrase, and still more later on. But it is hard to believe that his mind was at any moment, in this singularly serious work, accessible to any humorous suggestion. Even this unwieldly bass passage is to be taken seriously.

Out of the mysterious turmoil of this Allegro finally emerges, directly, almost suddenly, the magnificent Finale, like the triumph of Light over Darkness. For Beethoven joins the third Movement to the fourth (contrary to his habit in the symphonic form), and the transition displays his original genius in another aspect: the Coda begins with an A-flat major chord, the Third of which, c, is very softly tapped out by the kettledrum, in the rhythm of the "oracular" motive, while the strings hold the rest of the chord (ppp) for no fewer than fifteen measures---the drum meanwhile modifying its rhythmic tap as if endowed with human intelligence. Thereafter the first violins resume and retain the first thematic melody; the harmony sways around the c, with which the drum now keeps up an incessant tapping, until a final crescendo, through four measures of the dominant chord, leads into the Theme of the Finale (ff); the c is foreign to this chord, but that makes no difference to the drummer; he keeps right on beating his c, crescendo, until it "wins out" as emphatic keynote. The form of the Finale is a very broad sonata-allegro. The orchestra is increased by the addition of a piccolo, a contra-bassoon, and three trombones, for this Song of Triumph called for a larger, more resounding tone-apparatus. The final Sections of the Development revert, in an unusual manner, to the Scherzo, and consist in a recurrence of the "oracular' phrase of the second Part, in minor as before, and extended; and a dominant ending similar to that which preceded the Finale, and which here leads (with a few measures of the same drum-beat on c) into the Recapitulation. The Coda is quite lengthy, and its last Sections are in presto tempo, with motives from the Codetta and from the principal Theme.


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