performed by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich under David Zinman
Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.
This symphony is the work I have thought of as potentially most… intimidating to write about since the inception of the blog, that whenever I get around to this work, I’ll have to find something new, something interesting to say about it that hasn’t already been said.
What is there to say? It’s only, y’know, perhaps the most famous, recognizable thing ever written. But we’ll talk a little bit about that later. First a little bit about the work’s inception.
Sketches date as far back as 1804, upon the completion of the third symphony, but many, many pieces got in the way of LvB giving the work his full attention, among them his only opera Fidelio, the Appassionata, the Rasumovsky string quartets, obviously the fourth symphony, as well as the violin concerto and the fourth piano concerto. That’s a lot to juggle. Oh, and the Mass in C. After all this distraction and putting off of the what eventually became the fifth, it premiered in 1808, alongside its successor the sixth, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Of the work, smack in the middle of the composer’s thirties and his compositional output, Wikipedia says:
Beethoven was in his mid-thirties during this time; his personal life was troubled by increasing deafness. In the world at large, the period was marked by the Napoleonic Wars, political turmoil in Austria, and the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon‘s troops in 1805.
I’m no historian, and I haven’t done any research on it, but you’ll likely remember Beethoven’s original admiration for and later response to Napoleon in regards to the third symphony, so this political climate likely troubled the composer. We’ll talk a bit later about the effects of the premiere, or rather my thoughts on it, but it was (in)famously first performed alongside the sixth in an enormous four-hour concert, all of which were Beethoven premieres, all conducted by the composer. Wikipedia says:
The program was as follows:
- The Sixth Symphony
- Aria: Ah! perfido, Op. 65
- The Gloria movement of the Mass in C major
- The Fourth Piano Concerto (played by Beethoven himself)
- The Fifth Symphony
- The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the C major Mass
- A solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven
- The Choral Fantasy
Holy crap. Talk about a concert program. Hoffman’s praise for the piece above came something like 18 months after the premiere, alongside the publication of the score. He sang its praises, and despite the relatively failed premiere, the work has entered the canon as one of the most performed symphonies in human history. But we’ll also talk more about that later.
The first movement begins with…. I’m kidding, everyone knows that: ta-ta-ta-taaaaaah! But it’s kind of the musical equivalent of Mona Lisa’s smile. Is she smiling? Is it a frown? A smirk? How do we play this? Wikipedia has a (very) lengthy quote from Michael Steinberg about how to approach this simple four-note motif. There was (and maybe still is) a generation of conductors willing to adorn this opening figure, and the entire symphony, with an almost unbecoming amount of heft and drama and fire, but there are interpretations, like from Zinman, Chailly, or Harnoncourt that burn with zest and pace rather than being encumbered with weight.
In any case, those first few gestures set off a chain reaction as this triplet idea spreads through the orchestra, echoing here and there, bouncing around and growing and smoldering. People are familiar with this movement, not as much the whole work, but what’s so genius about it is how Beethoven uses an absolute minimum of material. The ‘melody’ is just reiterations and slight adjustments and changes on that same opening figure, an entire chunk of a symphony built from one single gesture, until heroic horn calls bring an end to it, introducing the E-flat major theme that contrasts so strongly with the C minor first theme. This, my dear friends, is sonata form. We have two themes, two musical ideas, like characters, pitted against one another, creating great contrast and tension. Listen to the E-flat major theme, in fact based entirely on the call from the horns, pretty and relaxing, flowing and expressive, but without losing the forward momentum of the work. Do you see the contrast?
If not, don’t worry. In most sonata-form movements, especially of the time, the exposition (the first theme, transition, and second theme) is repeated, so once the pretty E-flat major theme ends, we go back to the beginning; that should be pretty easy to spot. Now we’re doing it a second time. Why? Because it’s the foundation of everything in the movement, and in some cases of the entire work, so it’s important that it be well established. Once it finishes the second time, though, we’re in the development.
This is where these two themes really hash it out. Beethoven was a master of this kind of presentation, creating conflict through themes and ideas rather than just an eight-bar melody, and letting them battle it out and resolve. Do you hear echoes of each in the middle part of this movement? But how do we know how it ends? Well, it should sound pretty similar to the way it began, with a few exceptions. That direction-changing horn call is now sung by the bassoons, and at one of the great climaxes in the recapitulation, we get out of nowhere a solo from an oboe. The coda in this movement, a ‘tail’ of an afterthought to wrap things up in a dramatic fashion, is here longer than any of these other subsections, adding great drama and intensity to this overall masterfully-crafted movement. Did you know why this movement is considered such a masterpiece of composition? Now maybe you have a slightly better idea.
The second movement, though. After the final, commanding finish of the first movement, many listeners might be in new territory. Yes, there are three additional movements to this symphony, and they’re critical (obviously) to appreciating this work as a whole. The second movement opens so much more peacefully, violas and cellos introducing a theme that is answered by the rest of the orchestra, beginning beautiful theme-and-variations movement. This might seem unrelated to the first movement in its pacific nature, but after a passage from clarinets and bassoons, the entire orchestra comes to life in a triumphant presentation. This is all kind of ‘section 1’, and then we go back with a variation, presented in the same order: viola/cello, clarinet/bassoon, full orchestra. It’s just stunning, beautiful music. Pay attention to call-and-response phrasing, how the theme gets passed around and swells to great, majestic grandeur but also down to quiet, subtle whispers. It’s a moving, stately contrast to the first movement, but still related: we hear this underlying triplet beat that calls that opening figure to mind.
The third movement, though, again with balancing similarity and contrast, begins with some of the majesty of the second movement, or rather just bathes in a bit of its warmth, but cellos and basses begin darkly, in shadow, and rather quietly and slowly for what begins the scherzo movement. So where does that happen? Again with horns. They introduce what should be a very familiar ‘ta-ta-ta-taaah’ figure that introduces the theme proper of the scherzo, but is also clearly a callback to the foundation of the first movement. Genius, right?
And the contrast to the scherzo is the trio, originally a contrasting set of instruments and lighter than the scherzo. Well, we begin again with cello and bass, but in a much more spirited passage, and they whip the whole orchestra into a frenzy of contrapuntal motion, something bright, friendly, and triumphant, until the entire orchestra has joined in the celebration. The last iteration of this central trio is softer, contrasting even with itself, and then back to the scherzo. But what’s different about this return? Well, for one, there’s pizzicato! The entire thing seems mischievous, quiet, and incredibly tense, with chirps from woodwinds, held chords in strings with a timpani pulse…
What’s going on here?
What’s going on is the attacca beginning of the finale, one of the most beautiful, splendid, triumphant bursts of glory in all of music. The familiar, ‘we’ve heard this before’ scherzo is reimagined as quiet, tense, both a confusing close to the scherzo but also the build-up for the magnificent conclusion to this masterfully-constructed symphony.
Why does it feel this way? Remember how we started? You don’t need to be reminded how this symphony begins: minor key ‘ta-ta-ta-taaaaah’, in C minor, dark, troubled, heavy. But now… we’re in C major, at one of the most spirited, full-bodied moments of the entire symphony, and sure, it’s beautiful on its own, but what makes it so much more gorgeous is where it came from: borne of the troubled strife and fire-and-brimstone famous theme in the first movement, there’s a sense of triumph, of victory in the face of adversity, a glory and freeness. There’s nothing else like it in music.
The horns again help us out in introducing a second, equally as triumphant, but slightly longer, broad theme. And there’s a third, softer theme, presenting three ideas that aren’t actually part of a rondo, but a sort of nontraditional sonata form. Interestingly, what’s presented here is all various forms of success and triumph, but we’re not out of the clear yet. In order to wring every ounce of passion and emotion out of the work, and to emphasize this climb we’ve made to something truly epic and heroic and sublime, there’s a sudden stop…. ta-ta-ta-tah… and that familiar triplet theme from the scherzo is back. What a rule-breaker, huh? Leading without pause to the fourth movement and suddenly doubling back for a quick rearward glance before repeating that glorious presentation of triumph. He again gives us a stupendous coda and manages, believe it or not, to wrap up this historical, monumental, truly epic symphony in a satisfyingly triumphant way.
So that’s that… a brief rundown of what happens in one of the greatest symphonies ever written. And yes, you can listen to it from moment to moment, melody to melody, but there’s more to it than that. Music that disregards structure or context and just proceeds in a linear fashion is called ‘through-composed’ and it has none of the structural elements that we talked about above. It might be pretty then and there, but there’s not an overall sense of structure or unity. You can listen to Beethoven like that because he writes beautiful music, but to me, and to many others, the true genius of Beethoven’s work is what he does with his content. Each gesture is well-placed, to produce contrast, create unity, develop an idea or stop one in its tracks. It’s exactly this kind of building of tension and conflict and resolution that makes Beethoven’s music so truly spectacular.
I know this piece…
As we said at the beginning, people say they are familiar with this work, because who doesn’t know the opening figure? But I’d be willing to bet that most (non-music) people couldn’t identify the second, third, or fourth movements on their own. Of course folks who know and really enjoy classical music will, but my point is that so much of this symphony’s real glory and genius is obviously in what happens subsequent to that first movement, or even just its first section. How could you truncate 75% of a work of art and not expect it to suffer?! So… I’d argue that until you have some appreciation for the real themes and underlying ‘plot’ or ‘layout’ of the work, you haven’t begun to appreciate what Beethoven has done here. I’m not saying I 100% do, but there’s so much more to it than the “I know that symphony!” person might realize.
Also, there’s a sentiment that because it’s absolutely ubiquitous, famous everywhere from concert halls to cartoons, that it’s somehow… a cliché of classical music, because how can something so famous, so revisited and well-known, manage to be and to stay so relevant and powerful? Well, truthfully it’s because its genius is just that enduring. I’m all for promoting underperformed, neglected symphonies and composers, and I try to do so here, but there is just absolutely no denying that this symphony is one of the greatest things ever to be put on paper.
A word on recordings
I’ll admit that Bernstein and Karajan are two of the most well-represented conductors on the recorded library of classical music. Karajan loved the recording process, and he and Bernstein came around at a time when that technology (be it TV and radio or improved recording technology or the CD, etc.) were improving rapidly.
I have no question or doubts that both of those men were extremely talented musicians; I’ve watched recordings of their rehearsals with various orchestras and even in a language I don’t understand very well, it’s clear that they both have exquisite musical minds, a clear, logical vision for what they’re wanting to accomplish… but it just so happens that it isn’t the vision I want to hear.
Let me give you an example. If you haven’t listened to my chosen recording above, with Zinman and his Tonhalle playing the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the work, go do that, or listen to this one below:
Harnoncourt’s studio recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe would have been my second choice to feature, followed by like, Chailly and Leibowitz. But if you listen to them, you’ll notice that they’re all on the same end of the scale, a faster, lighter, more propulsive intensity, arguably (by some) truer to Beethoven’s metronome markings and stripped of the heavy, overt Romanticism of some of the 20th century’s greatest conductors. Compare that brisk intensity with something like this:
Mind you, the work is not ineffective this way. Barenboim himself is a musical genius as conductor, pianist, and ridiculous polyglot, but I’m just not a fan of the heaviness of this interpretation. There are others, obviously, but I have to pick on someone. Granted, Bernstein and Karajan and the like don’t start slow, but the Romantic tendency is maybe to put on the breaks and swell up on big important passages, and that’s just not my thing. I find a breathtaking, relentless but unified intensity in what I would call a more purist approach.
But then again, that’s just my opinion. I own Lennie’s cycle, with Vienna, just as a reference, and feel like I should own Karajan’s, but I can’t remember the last time I listened to any of Bernstein’s recordings, and I’d likely never touch Karajan’s either. I’ve bought Leibowitz’s (who, by the way, with the Royal Philharmonic, was one of the first to present this fresh, undramatized approach), Chailly’s, Harnoncourt’s, Zinman, Abbado (with Vienna and Berlin, the latter live), Bernstein, and bits of Rattle’s recent Berlin release (of which I think the seventh is maybe the best, but parts of the fifth are exquisite).
So there you have it… some of my thoughts on one of the most performed, talked about, recognized, written about works in all of classical music history. It also means we’ve now reached the midpoint of his piano concertos and his symphonies, with only string quartets, piano trios, tons of piano sonatas and a ton else left to catch up on.
Fundamentally, it’s nearly impossible to compare experiences when listening to music… with something as moving, as stirring and inspiring as this, there’s a compulsion to share your emotions, your feelings with another, and they can be so beyond expression that the best we can do is know that your fellow listener or concertgoer has also experienced something ineffable, and we can just appreciate that something of such supreme beauty exists.