July 2010

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

by Ludwig van Beethoven

We talked about Ludwig van Beethoven back in December 2009. Without question, this symphony is his most well-known work. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that in the entire classical music realm, there is no piece of music more recognized than the first few notes of this symphony.

A "symphony" is a piece of music that is usually written in three or four parts, called movements. When you're at a concert, and a symphony is being performed, it is not proper to start clapping until all of the movements of a particular symphony have been played. If you've ever been at a concert and wondered why no one was clapping after the music stopped, that's why. A symphony is usually written for an orchestra to play.

Beethoven composed nine symphonies before he died. His fifth symphony was written between 1804 and 1808. Most of the piece is in the key of C minor. A minor key usually sounds sad or angry. This piece is definitely more on the angry side.

Symphony No. 5 has four movements (thought it actually seems like three). The first movement is marked Allegro con brio, which is Italian for "fast with spirit or vigor". The second movement is marked Andante con moto. This is Italian, meaning "at a slower, walking pace with motion" (or "slower, but not too slow"). This movement has a more peaceful feel to it and is mostly in a major key. The third movement is marked Scherzo. Allegro. Like the first movement, "Allegro" means "fast". "Scherzo" is an Italian word that means "joke". In this sense, it's meant to be playful. You'll notice that it sounds kind of sneaky to start with, and then comes in with one of the loudest, and most awesome, French Horn parts ever. The fourth movement is marked, simply, Allegro ("fast"), and really brings it home. In fact, the fourth movement has a trademark ending for many Beethoven pieces. If you listen to it, try to decide when it ends. Beethoven has a remarkable ability to drag out the ending of some of his pieces far longer than most would feel he should. It's almost funny.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I was thinking about when I first heard this piece, and I really don't know. I know I've said this with some of the other pieces, but I really can't recall ever not knowing this piece.

I can remember listening to it every now and then in my teen years, and I definitely had a recording of this on my mission. I think it was really on my mission that I got to know it best. I had a tape (which, as I recall, I swiped from Dad) of Lorin Maazel conducting it (which still stands as one of my favorite recordings, though you'll hear the CD version later).


As I've meant to gear this to younger children, I'll only assign you to listen to the first movement. It's 8 minutes long, but it's pretty loud and exciting throughout. I don't think you'll have any trouble keeping interest. Enjoy!

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, First Movement by Ludwig van Beethoven (8:01)

For those interested, this recording Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is one of the greatest pieces of music written, period. Just listening to the first movement, you get this tremendous feeling of energy, anger, frustration, power.

There's a story that may or may not be true. The claim is that Beethoven described the first few notes as "Fate knocking at the door." It's an interesting description. For me, it's almost like an angry parent scolding their child. In fact, there's a part toward the end of the first movement that's almost funny, in which you have a very loud, very intense series of notes that's almost like shouting, and then you get a couple of really quiet notes and a pause, and then the loud notes come back again. It's almost as if someone's yelling to the top of their lungs, and the person being shouted at asks, "are you done yet?" This makes the shouter even madder and yells some more.

I think the best way for me to describe this entire symphony is energizing. It just charges the listener. It gets them excited. And then, finally, by the end of the fourth movement, you just feel great! It is an absolutely brilliant piece of music and one that everyone should know.

Extra Credit:

Lots of extra credit for this one.

First things first, if you would like to listen to the other three movements, I highly recommend it. You'll notice that there are only two links (instead of three). The second link combines the third and fourth movement. This actually happens a lot with recordings of Symphony No. 5 because there really is no break in the music between the third and fourth movement.

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Second Movement by Ludwig van Beethoven (12:01)

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Third and Fourth Movements by Ludwig van Beethoven (14:24)

Next, I'd like to have a little fun. Peter Schickele (also known as P. D. Q. Bach) put together a really funny routine. He'll explain what he's doing, but he's essentially adding a "sports-like" commentary to a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I highly recommend this:

New Horizons in Music Appreciation Beethoven's Fifth Symphony by Peter Schickele (8:50)

And of course I'd have to include something from The Simpsons. This clip from Season 16 was a funny and short-sighted view of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (and classical music in general). Enjoy!

And finally, many of my brothers and sisters knew this was coming, Walter Murphy put together a disco version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that he called "A Fifth of Beethoven". This is something I was actually fascinated with in my early teen years, and actually put together a version of it on the Commodore 64. Here's the original disco rendition:

A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy (3:03)