31 Jan 2012

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Duration: 31 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – In 1807 Beethoven made a proposal to the Imperial Theatre Directors of Vienna for a yearly opera commission and a separate benefit concert also to be held annually in one of the performance halls. This request, if granted, would have provided him with some much needed stability and would have provided posterity with the boon of a full operatic catalogue from the great master.

THE MUSIC – Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be and the single 1808 concert offered by the Directors was to be the sole fruit of Beethoven’s ambitious suggestion. The unfulfilling circumstances of the event in general and the premiere of the 5th Symphony specifically are now legendary. The concert was notable not only for its prodigious length (four hours!) and poor preparation (only one rehearsal!) but also its rather uncomfortable hospitality (the hall was unheated on that bitterly cold December night!). History however makes its own magic with the ingredients provided by fate and that night, though unsuccessful, is revered today for good reason. The 5th Symphony owes its fame to the four notes that mark the opening of the first movement but its importance is grounded in the paradigm-shifting effect of the entire work. Compositional innovations abound in the score and brass players the world over laud the piece for making the first purely symphonic use of the trombone. The initial insistent motif of the symphony has been referred to as “Fate knocking at the door” and even if we are no longer certain that Beethoven himself used that phrase it is aptly put. The stark energy of that simple idea contains a microcosmic completeness that informs all four movements and serves as the first fearless steps on the journey from darkness to light, a frequent emotional ideal in Beethoven’s music but one employed here more perfectly than ever before.

THE WORLD – 1808 also marked the publication of Scottish poet Walter Scott’s Marmion, which included the memorable line “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive.” That year also saw the end of Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency.

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony, like all professional orchestras, programs Beethoven 5 frequently. The most recent performance was in 2009 under the direction of Matthias Bamert.