Variations on a Theme: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
October 1, 2011
Flash version here.
Looking for a
change from your go-to classics? Take a cue from the LSM team as we
recommend listening alternatives to the usual masterworks.
No. 5 in C minor, op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) is widely considered as the
dominant musical figure of the 19th century. His life’s
work has been categorized by historians into three periods: the early
period reflects the Viennese style of Mozart and Haydn; the middle period
shows increased drama and expression through the symphonic form; and
the late period, defined by his tragic deafness, features his most transcendent
that a symphony was like a psychological journey, where themes represent
characters and harmonies represent heroic victory. The Fifth Symphony,
one of his most famous compositions, emphasizes the idea of struggle
leading to triumph. Sudden changes of dynamic, intense transitions,
recurring thematic material and spectacular coda sections represent
the musical expedition this symphony takes us on. Beethoven is said
to have described the opening four notes of the Fifth as “fate knocking
at the door”, an association that accurately describes the importance
of this theme, which returns several times throughout the symphony.
Beethoven’s expansion of the sonata form and introduction of intense
expression through instrumental music sets him apart from the traditions
of the 18th century and forced a new standard for symphonic
writing for years to come. Audrey Sproule
Beethoven: The Symphonies
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS-SACD-1825/26 (5 CDs: 5 h 53 min 16 s)
Among the “great” versions of Beethoven’s Fifth—and there
are many—this more recent version (2004) from Finnish conductor Osmo
Vänskä should be included. It might be a lesser-known, but this exemplary
recording successfully combines intensity without heaviness, and precision
without dryness. It is like hearing this universally acclaimed work
anew. The complete work is consistent throughout, and, moreover, it’s
now available at a reduced price—a rare bargain.
Sonata No. 2, “Concord”
Year written: 1909-1915
Steeped in the spirit of American transcendentalism, Ives created a
stunning and complex work in which the “fate motif” of Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony is omnipresent, sometimes in the most unexpected forms.
Its transformation in the third movement into luminous and magnificent
major chords is wonderfully moving.
Ives’s harmonic and melodic language is highly developed and significantly
more dissonant than Beethoven’s. Furthermore, in the second movement
of his work, clusters are incorporated for the first time. To appreciate
the richness of this iconoclastic piece, it may have to be listened
to more than once.
Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord”
Jay Gottlieb, piano
Pianovox, PIA 503-2, 1998
Pemi Paull recommends…
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 99
Year written: 1947-1948
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is associated with the defiance of fate,
represented by its famous four-note “fate knocking at the door”
motif, which appears throughout the piece. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto,
written at a time of extreme censorship in the Soviet Union, is an assertion
of humanity in the face of forces seeking to crush the human spirit.
The beginning of the Passacaglia is also notable for its juxtaposition
of the invasion or Stalin theme from the Seventh Symphony and the fate
motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.
Beethoven’s symphony is classical in form, and uses its famous theme
to underpin the structure. The Shostakovich concerto uses a slow-fast-slow-fast
structure, making reference the fate theme in a long violin cadenza
which links the Passacaglia, which is the emotional heart of the concerto,
to the final Burlesque movement.
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1; Festive Overture op. 96
Leonid Kogan, violin; Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky
Russian Revelation (10084), 1997
Paul E. Robinson
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Year written: 1915 (revised 1947)
This is one of the great piano pieces of the Twentieth Century. It is
comprised of impressionistic pictures of Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts
and Thoreau, but musically it makes extensive use of the familiar opening
of the Beethoven Fifth.
The Concord Sonata quotes Beethoven but is highly experimental.
The performer needs a piece of wood to play a cluster chord in the second
movement, and there are optional parts for viola and flute. Even after
nearly one hundred years it remains a surprising and exciting piece.
Just like the Beethoven Fifth.
Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano
Hyperion CD A67469, 2004
• National Arts Centre Orchestra/Lintu; October 12. Ottawa – nac-cna.ca
• Orchestre Métropolitain/Yannick Nézet-Séguin; October 20. Montréal
• Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Storgaards; February 16, 18, 2012. Toronto
French: Lynn Travers