29 Aug 2019

NZSO Beethoven Festival: Symphony No 5 in C minor

From Music Alive, 7:30 pm on 29 August 2019

Beethoven’s life was filled with bad luck and enormous challenges but he beat all the odds to create some of the world’s most enduring and powerful music.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 Photo: Public Domain

One of the most famous of all Beethoven’s works is his Symphony No 5 in C minor, with its iconic opening, which the composer referred to as “Fate knocking on the door”.

That recognisable rhythmic contour appears repeatedly throughout the first, and, arguably, throughout the other three movements.

Out of this one rhythmic cell, Beethoven builds a symphonic beast. A monster that gave him considerable grief. He started sketches for the Fifth Symphony in 1804, but it took him another 4 years to complete it. (The fourth was a pussycat in comparison. He finished that symphony in a single summer.)

The slow movement in the fifth symphony is a set of three variations on a theme.

The scherzo third movement’s been described as the music groping from darkness upwards to the light; and there’s an extraordinary passage for the double basses, who really aren’t used to having to play quite so quickly…

There’s a transitional passage of great mystery, where Beethoven even dispenses with melody altogether – the Fate motif occurring rhythmically from the timpani.

And then a triumphant blaze of light, with one of the most life-affirming movements in all symphonic writing. The opening movement’s Fate motif might well be Morse code for “V”, and used as the symbol for victory during the World War II, but it’s in this finale that we hear Beethoven’s idea of victory over adversity, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Recorded 29 August 2019, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington by RNZ Concert

Producer: David McCaw

Engineer: Darryl Stack


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