The Secrets of Beethoven’s Fifth, the World’s Most Famous Symphony

Revered by music lovers of tem­pera­ments as var­ied as Peanuts’ Schroed­er and A Clock­work Orange’s AlexLud­wig van Beethoven is one of the most cel­e­brat­ed com­posers in the West­ern clas­si­cal music canon.

Sym­pho­ny No. 5 in C minor is sure­ly one of his most rec­og­nized, and fre­quent­ly per­formed works, thanks in large part to its dra­mat­ic open­ing motif –


Music edu­ca­tor Hanako Sawa­da’s enter­tain­ing TED-Ed les­son, ani­mat­ed by Yael Reis­feld above, delves into the sto­ry behind this sym­pho­ny, “one of the most explo­sive pieces of music ever com­posed.”

Mid­dle and high school music teach­ers will be glad to know the cre­ators lean into the height­ened emo­tions of the piece, depict­ing the com­pos­er as a tor­tured genius whose pierc­ing gaze is bluer than Game of Thrones’ Night King.

Beethoven was already enjoy­ing a suc­cess­ful rep­u­ta­tion at the time of the symphony’s 1808 pre­miere, but not because he toiled in the ser­vice of reli­gion or wealthy patrons like his peers.

Instead, he was an ear­ly-19th cen­tu­ry bad ass, pri­or­i­tiz­ing self-expres­sion and pour­ing his emo­tions into com­po­si­tions he then sold to var­i­ous music pub­lish­ers.

With the Fifth, he real­ly shook off the rigid struc­tures of pre­vail­ing clas­si­cal norms, embrac­ing Roman­ti­cism in all its glo­ri­ous tur­moil.

The famous open­ing motif is repeat­ed to the point of obses­sion:

Through­out the piece, the motif is passed around the orches­tra like a whis­per, grad­u­al­ly reach­ing more and more instru­ments until it becomes a roar.

Besot­ted teenagers, well acquaint­ed with this feel­ing, are equipped with the inter­nal trom­bones, pic­co­los, and con­tra­bas­soons of the sort that make the piece even more urgent in feel.

Just wait until they get hold of Beethoven’s Immor­tal Beloved let­ters, writ­ten a few years after the sym­pho­ny, when the hear­ing loss he was wrestling with had pro­gressed to near total deaf­ness.

Whether or not it was the com­pos­er (and not his biog­ra­ph­er) who char­ac­ter­ized the cen­tral motif as the sound of “Fate knock­ing at the door,” it’s an apt, and riv­et­ing notion.

Take a quiz, par­tic­i­pate in a guid­ed dis­cus­sion, and cus­tomize Hanako Sawada’s les­son, “The Secrets of the World’s Most Famous Sym­pho­ny,” here.

Lis­ten to the sym­pho­ny in its entire­ty below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beethoven’s Unfin­ished Tenth Sym­pho­ny Gets Com­plet­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Hear How It Sounds

Did Beethoven Use a Bro­ken Metronome When Com­pos­ing His String Quar­tets? Sci­en­tists & Musi­cians Try to Solve the Cen­turies-Old Mys­tery

Watch Ani­mat­ed Scores of Beethoven’s 16 String Quar­tets: An Ear­ly Cel­e­bra­tion of the 250th Anniver­sary of His Birth

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday. 

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  • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    There is hard­ly any­thing in this piece that dis­proves cre­dence. The bit about exag­ger­at­ed Roman­ti­cism is bosh. The work is a text­book exam­ple of clas­sic form and pro­ce­dure with the excep­tion of the last move­ment that shifts from c‑minor to c‑major, uses trom­bones, and is linked attac­ca with the pre­vi­ous move­ment. The real­ly doppy thing is this dum dum dum dah non­sense. It is often erroneaouslt played this way, as if it were an eighth-note triplet with accents above every note and then some­one open the refrig­er­a­tor and all the frozen emo­tions of would be “artists” crash to the floor. It is not a triplet, it is an eight-note rest ( no way to do that on here but:
    Rest dah dum dah. |. Dum. Rest

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