Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Symphony No.5
We’re always hearing how Beethoven heroically defeated his deafness, yet rarely reminded - at least, not with comparable vigour - that deafness nearly defeated him. In 1802, the despairing composer wrote his ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ (as in ‘Last Will and’), in which he made several connected confessions. His understandable terror at the thought of going deaf was compounded by much less obvious emotions - embarrassment and shame. At the time, he was best known as a performer, which meant that if word got around he’d be ridiculed personally and ruined professionally. He conceded what amounted to two defensive reflexes. Never particularly hot on etiquette, he grew ever more angry, concealing his affliction behind noisy bluster. Complementing this, ever a nature-lover, he increasingly sought solace far from the madding crowd. Admitting that he’d been driven to the brink of suicide, Beethoven declared that his hand had been stayed only by his art.
Writing one will seemed to release another - the one currently quivering between the offending organs - and, swayed by his rural surroundings, he started to make tentative sketches for a symphony. These he had to set aside when mundane business beckoned. Hurling himself back into the hurly-burly, in 1803/4 he wrote his Third Symphony. With the Eroica, a symphony of unprecedented scale and expressive scope, he affirmed his resolve, ripping up the rule-book and revolutionising the form. Immediately he pitched into writing another, but had to set that aside as well, this time to make way for the commission-fulfilling, and hence relatively conventional Fourth Symphony (1806).
That makes two symphonies relegated to the back burner by ‘overriding business priorities’, which confirmed they were personal in nature, dictated by the artistic imperatives that had hoicked him back from the brink. From 1806, these two works grew up alongside one another, in fact so closely that, after they ‘came out’ at the same concert (1808) Beethoven had to correct their confused numbers. Started first, in his darkest hour, the Sixth Symphony reflects his greatest consolation, Mother Nature, which had clearly played a part in restoring him to the bosom of Life. Finished first, but started in happier circumstances, with his self-confidence boosted sky-high by the Eroica, the Fifth stands in starkest contrast. Can this symphony be anything other than an expression of that nightmare he lived through between 1802 and 1804?
1. Allegro con brio. ‘Fate’ (or ‘Destiny’) may be said to knock at the door, who knows? The source of the famous phrase, Anton Schindler, was none too reliable. However, this sounds less like any knock at the door, and far more like Beethoven hammering in impotent fury at his own ailing head. This hammering dominates the movement from first to last. The lyrical second subject, a forlorn aspiration, grows out of it, is infested with it, and is ultimately swallowed up by its fury. The development’s exhausted breathing is also devoured by its resurgent rage. Only the poignant oboe, interrupting the reprise, manages a moment of questioning lucidity, before it too is swept away by the torrent. Almost incidentally, it seems, Beethoven had invented a wholly new style of motivic development.
2. Andante con moto. Cast in a ‘standard’ form of variations on a ‘verse and refrain’ theme, the effect is anything but standard. The ‘verses’ are despondent and lamenting, whilst the ‘refrains’, in trying their best to adopt an attitude of fortitude, surge hopefully upwards - only to tail off into numb hopelessness. By the latter stages, with the ghost of the ‘hammering’ motive now haunting the scene, there is an unmistakable feeling that this is the ‘depressive’ corresponding to the first movement’s ‘manic’.
3. Allegro. However, creeping and crawling though the psychological undergrowth comes a tentative question. In response, the ‘hammering’ motive, its aggression transformed by a renewed sense of direction, bangs imperiously on the door of ‘possibility’. The trio section clambers purposefully from the double-basses - a fugue that seems to be testing unwilling sinews, willing them to vigour. At the end, the transformed motive tiptoes, groping in the gloom, hardly daring to breathe the all-important question: ‘Can I?’ At first almost imperceptibly, then with rapidly burgeoning assurance, the answer emerges . . .
4. Allegro . . . ‘Yes - I can!’ The finale erupts into a deliriously creative clamour, disgorging what feels like a swarm of subjects (but is probably ‘only’ three!). However, at the end of the tumultuous development joyousness is dissipated by lingering doubt: seeking reassurance, the third movement’s question is again posed: ‘Can I - can I really?’ The answer is confirmed by the unabated jubilation of the reprise, which sails triumphantly through into an ecstatically extended coda!
In no way aspiring to the epic proportions of the Eroica, this concentrated symphony is stuffed with technical innovations: not only in that motivic development idea, but also in the linking of two movements, the introduction of rude trombones and shrill piccolo into the symphony’s hallowed halls, and not least in the sharing of material between movements. The ‘hammering’ motive, apparently representing the composer and his evolving state of mind, is nothing less than a motto theme. Couple that with the evidently traumatic, autobiographical angle, and what do you have? Surely, nothing less than an ‘episode in the life of an artist’, the prototype for a certain revolutionary Symphonie that was then still fully twenty years in the future.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.