Revered by music lovers of temperaments as varied as Peanuts’ Schroeder and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Ludwig 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.
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.