Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
in 1804, the year he began to work on the Fifth Symphony.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C minor is perhaps one of the best known compositions in classical music.  Everyone recognizes the ominous four-note opening motif:

But how many can identify the second movement?  As we listen our way through significant classical works, I thought it was important for the kids to hear this familiar melody within the context of the entire piece.

The Symphony No. 5 in C minor was composed over a period of four years, during the "Middle" period of Beethoven's career.  He repeatedly interrupted this work to prepare other compositions.  The final preparation of the Fifth Symphony, which took place in 1807-1808 was carried out in parallel with the Sixth Symphony, which premiered at the same concert.

Beethoven was in his mid-thirties during this time and both his personal life and the world at large was in turmoil.  In his personal life, Beethoven was troubled by increasing deafness and in Vienna, Austria, where he had settled, political turmoil was marked by the occupation of Napoleon's troops.  This life of turmoil may be why some critics believe C minor to Beethoven's signature key.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony is comprised of four movements as follows: 
  • First Movement:  Allegro con brio
The first movement opens with the four-note motif above.  This ominous, minor introduction feels as if fate is knocking at the door.  The movement is in the traditional sonata form that Beethoven inherited from his classical predecessors, Haydn and Mozart.  Here, the main ideas are introduced and then undergo elaborate development through many keys with a dramatic return to the opening section.
  • Second Movement:  Andante con moto
The second movement, in A flat major, is a lyrical work in double variation form. This means that two themes are presented and varied in alteration.  It presents a quiet respite to the frantic first movement.  Here one discovers a few tender moments followed by a stately, royal dance.  
  • Third Movement:  Scherzo Allegro
In the third movement we hear the horns repeating the rhythmic motif of the opening, but on the same note.  The Scherzo Allegro marches forth in a grand and stately fashion with less foreboding harmonic tones than the first movement.
  • Fourth Movement:  Allegro
The fourth movement is a triumphant grand finale.  The symphony ends with 29 bars of C major chords, played fortissimo.  Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style suggests that this ending reflects Beethoven's sense of Classical proportions:  the "unbelievably long" pure C major cadence is needed "to ground the extreme tension of this immense work."
The range of feeling and emotion in this piece reminds me of what Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, once said when asked for a criticism of both Beethoven's work and the man himself.  He said to Beethoven, "You make upon me the impression of a man who has several heads, several hearts and several souls."  If this is true, then all these heads, hearts and souls can be found in Symphony No. 5.

Kid Critique:

SAMUEL:  It's interesting.  It makes me imagine that there was a war that has ended and it is now peaceful.  I still don't like classical music.  I'll be happy when we listen to Elvis. (EDITOR'S NOTE:  While Elvis may be old, his music does not qualify as classical.)
ANNA:  I think it's cool how one song can have so many different sounds.
ARIELLE:  I liked how it is so lively. You can really tell that Beethoven wrote it because of how energetic it was and how a little bit of it was soft.  Parts of it sounded like the music in Peter Pan!
ELLA: The second part sounds really nice and beautiful.  Sometimes it sounds very sweet and sometimes it sounds loud like there is a party.  I like it because it sounds beautiful and royal.

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