Beethoven’s Fifth: The World’s Most Famous Symphony

Beethoven’s Fifth: The World’s Most Famous Symphony

Is it possible for a work of art to become too famous for its own good? Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Beethoven’s Fifth is a work that has been so often reproduced, excerpted and remixed that it has become as easy to ignore a as flashing web banner. I will never forget the first time I heard Walter Murphy’s 1977 disco instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven” while perusing produce at a grocery store.

At first puzzled to hear the opening four notes of Beethoven’s famous symphony in a setting where Muzak was de rigueur, I soon realized that all was not as it seemed. This was yet another example of the seemingly endless adaptations of the world’s most famous symphony, along with the bleeding chunks of the first movement hewn together in Disney’s Fantasia 2000, a film about a lovable Saint Bernard, internet cat videos and even a cartoon about Beethoven’s wig (even though wigs were totally out of style by the time Beethoven grew up):

Many might argue that these allusions to Beethoven’s symphony are signs of the work’s continued relevance to modern-day popular culture and are perfect examples of the postmodernist aesthetic of quotation and sampling. Others, though, might argue that they risk turning music that was once perceived as shocking and revolutionary into something familiar and banal. Perhaps the most difficult layer of shellacked meaning to scrub off of this war horse is the way in which Beethoven’s Fifth has come to represent Classical Music and modern Western Culture in general. The Fifth Symphony was used by the allies in WWII as a symbol of victory, since the opening “da-da-da-dum” rhythm happens to translate as the letter “V” in Morse Code. Thanks to Carl Sagan, Otto Klemperer’s recording of the first movement is spiraling ever further away from us in outer space on board the Voyager spacecrafts’ Golden Records. Also, many of you may remember KULTUR Video International’s use of the Fifth as intro music for its classical music, opera, and ballet videos.

While many of these uses of this piece can add layers to our understanding and appreciation of Beethoven’s symphony, they can also cause us to lose sight of the music itself and its message (if music without words can have a message). Just for a moment, let’s step back and think about how this symphony must have sounded before YouTube, television and interstellar space travel.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had a long and difficult birth. Beethoven began his earliest sketches of it in 1804 and did not finish it until 1808, a four year stretch that also saw the completion of the Appassionata piano sonata, the three Razumovsky string quartets, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony, the Mass in C and the first version of Fidelio. Writing music comes easily to some composers—Mozart, for instance, could write a symphony in a few days—but Beethoven was not one of them. He relentlessly sketched, reworked and revised the Fifth Symphony, and the transformation his original ideas underwent is astonishing. Beethoven wrote that for him, composing “begins in my head [with] the working-out in breadth, height, and depth. Since I am aware of what I want, the fundamental idea never leaves me. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.”

Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope's hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David's "The Coronation of Napoleon."
Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope’s hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon.”

Aside from Beethoven’s usually arduous process of composing, there were other factors that may have presented difficulties for him. For instance, Napoleon, Beethoven’s sometime hero turned nemesis, defeated Austria and occupied Vienna in 1805. Beethoven had initially been sympathetic to Napoleon and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité that he seemed to represent as he promised to spread the French Revolution to all of Europe, toppling the ancient privileges of the aristocracy. Beethoven even planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon. When Napoleon infamously crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven scratched out his name on the title page and rededicated it “to the memory of a great man.”

While Napoleon was bombarding Vienna, Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement with pillows stuffed over his ears, fearing that the explosions would further destroy his deteriorating sense of hearing. Beethoven’s loss of hearing was slow and painful: he first began to notice a ringing in his ears in 1796 at the age of 26, and gradually it got worse and worse. First the highest notes fell silent, more and more disappearing as time passed. As a pianist, Beethoven would have been painfully aware of where on the keyboard his hearing ended. By 1802 it was interfering with his ability to follow conversations, and during a retreat in the town of Heiligenstadt, he even contemplated suicide. Fortunately for all music lovers, he ultimately decided to persevere, writing, “such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.”

It was thus amidst the turmoil of war, revolution and personal crisis that Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, a symphony that revolutionized music forever. From the opening four notes, gone are the powdered wigs, pastel colors and porcelain figurines of the eighteenth century, and we are plunged into a violent world of gunpowder and revolution. Beethoven obsessively pursues those first four notes—the entire first movement (and much of the others) is derived from them. Those first four notes have stuck in the ears of Western civilization because we’ve heard them before. The rhythm is a typical formula found at the ends of phrases in pieces by Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven strips away the trills and grace notes and imbues this driving rhythm with a brutal emotional power. The essence of Beethoven’s genius was that he could take the simplest building blocks of the classical style and construct radically new, monumental works with them.

The firsts of this symphony are impressive: it was one of the earliest symphonies to use trombones (and the one that made them stick as members of the symphonic orchestra) and the first symphony to bring music from one movement back in another. But more important was the new emotional character and arc of the music. In his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven takes listeners on a journey from the darkness and violence of the C minor first movement to the exultant triumph of the C major finale. Years later Beethoven wrote about this progression from minor to major in one of his conversation books:

“Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”

Joseph Willibrord Mähler painted this portrait of Beethoven circa 1804, just as he was creating his revolutionary new music.

Beethoven first discovered this new “Heroic” style in the first movement of his Third Symphony (the one he almost dedicated to Napoleon). The Fifth Symphony takes the theme of heroic struggle that Beethoven first explored in his Third Symphony and expands it to cover the entire four movements of the symphony. These works (and others in Beethoven’s oeuvre) forever changed what people thought music could do, what music could be. Now, I do not want to imply that earlier composers like Mozart did not write emotionally powerful music (anyone who has heard Mozart’s Requiem can attest to that), or even that Beethoven was the first to end a minor key piece in major (Mozart did that in his D minor Piano Concerto, his G minor String Quintet and other works). Beethoven was the first, however, to make us feel that the major ending comes out of the minor beginning, to write music that embodies the emotions of triumph in the face of adversity.

If we ask ourselves what this piece must have sounded like when it was first performed, the answer would be…not so good. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, as part of a four-hour concert of Beethoven premieres. By all accounts, the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and the audience was cold and exhausted. Beethoven’s legendary symphony thus probably went relatively unnoticed upon its first performance, sandwiched as it was between his Piano Concerto No. 4 and excerpts from his Mass in C major. However, after the symphony was published a year and a half later, E.T.A. Hoffman (perhaps most famous for writing the story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) penned a rapturous review of the symphony and later wrote the following description.

“How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound.”

By the time the next generation of composers came into their own, the Fifth was a cornerstone of the newly forming standard repertoire, and the rest, as they say, is history. This kind of minor-to-major, darkness-to-light journey became a model for composers for generations to come. Brahms’ First Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Mahler’s Fifth immediately spring to mind as examples, and composers continue to be influenced by Beethoven’s Fifth to this day.

So, what is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really about? Not a Saint Bernard, not animated butterflies in danger, not a wig, not disco fever, not victory for the allies, not a greeting for space aliens, not Western Civilization, Classical Music, Napoleon, or even Beethoven’s own heroic struggle to continue living and composing when faced with encroaching deafness. Beethoven’s Fifth is about triumph itself, about every hard won victory there has ever been or ever will be, even yours. Perhaps that is the real reason why Beethoven’s Fifth has come to be so famous and so symbolic of so many things. In the hands of a great orchestra like the Houston Symphony, we forget about the adaptations, the imitations, the symbolism and the history and experience triumph in its purest form for ourselves.

Don’t miss Beethoven’s Fifth on July 19, 2018 at Jones Hall! Get tickets and more information at

An earlier version of this blog post was originally published on November 14, 2014.

One response to “Beethoven’s Fifth: The World’s Most Famous Symphony

  1. My granddaughter is 11 and I am 69 years old. Are there any special rates for us for the July 20 Beethoven concert?

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