The Fifth Symphony Logo

A fragment from the Fifth Symphony first movement opening.
A fragment from the Fifth Symphony final.

Tonal unification and the pervasive use of a single rhythmic motif combine to make the Fifth Symphony, which had one of the longest gestation periods of any Beethoven work, the first in which all the movements are shown plainly to be part of a cyclic design. The famous motif which dominates the first movement in the form also makes significant appearances - often dramatic entrances - in the other three. It is this feature which gives the symphony its clear sense of organic growth and has probably accounted for its widespread popularity over so many generations. Tonal unity is provided by the close relationship between the parallel keys of C minor (the tonic) and C major, and the gradual yielding of the minor to major in the course of the work.

Beethoven's famous eight notes from the 5th symphony opening

To help achieve this transfer of control, from minor to major, Beethoven is obliged to make an important change in the traditional key relationships of a sonata movement in a minor key:instead of having the tonic minor govern the entire recapitulation in the first movement, he brings back the second subject in the tonic major, i.e. as a simple transposition rather than a fundamental recasting. (In this respect the movement anticipates the Romantic concept of thematic integrity and, by extension, the idea of the theme as the focal point of a composition.)

In the Andante con moto the occurrence of C major is much more striking, since it stands in a remote relation to the key of the movement (A flat major) and is heralded by an instrumental group not previously heard: the brass (both trumpets and horns in C) and the timpani. The move to C major here, far from being a consequence of conventional harmonic procedures, must result from composer's conscious decision to shape the movement as an integral part of the symphony. Significantly, the theme that proclaims the new key is based on a version of the rhythmic motif quoted above.

In the Scherzo, C major becomes the key of the trio section, a vigorous fugato which parodies 18th-century orchestral style by featuring the cellos and double basses paired on the same melodic line. And the finale is in C major, proclaimed brilliantly with the aid of five extra wind instruments (piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones). In the middle of this movement, the main section of the Scherzo is quietly recalled; this provides the last reminder of the home key of the symphony, and thus of the tragedy over which the finale is traditionally thought to express triumph. As Tovey has observed, it is probably because of this recurrence that Beethoven suppressed and extra repeat of the Scherzo and its trio within the third movement (thus reducing the ABABA' form, characteristic of his middle-period scherzos, to a simpler ABA') after conducting the first performance of the work.

Insofar as the strings dominate the orchestral texture, the Fifth Symphony looks back to the symphonic style of the late 18th century. Yet Beethoven takes the cellos beyond their normal bass-line function, giving them an important melodic role - especially in the middle movement. Throughout the symphony the bass instruments are called upon to interact motivically with the rest of the ensemble. This technique is reminiscent of the way Mozart handles the bass line in his Symphony no. 40 (K.550 in G minor) and fives evidence of a spiritual kinship between the two works.

Multimedia Beethoven Online Encyclopaedia provides completely explanation of Ludwig van Beethoven's greatest works - his nine symphonies. Please choose the number of the symphony below:

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