Day 198: Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 6

BeethovenCD3So famous is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that people around the world can identify it by its initial four notes.

In fact, an entire book has been written about that quartet of notes: The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri.

From Guerrieri’s exceptional book:

The pitches of the opening phrase produce their own ambiguity, albeit one that, given the symphony’s familiarity is, again, well-nigh impossible to recapture. The Fifth is in C minor, a key forever associated with Beethoven in his most heaven-storming moods. But, strictly speaking, C minor is not actually established until the seventh measure of the first movement. Beethoven exploits a quirk of music theory concerning the triad, one of the basic building blocks of Western music: a stack of three notes, the first, third, and fifth notes of the major or minor scale. If you take away one of the notes of a triad, it starts to, in effect, gesture in two directions at once. So the first two pitches of the Fifth Symphony, G and E-flat, might be two-thirds of a C-minor triad, or they may be two-thirds of an E-flat major triad. The second pair of pitches, F and D, could be part of a dominant-seventh chord built on G (the most basic harmonic antecedent of a C minor), or part of one built on B-flat (the most basic harmonic antecedent of E-flat major). From a music theory standpoint, the opening passage is playing fast and loose with the symphony’s key: until the cellos and bassoons anchor the motive with a sustained middle C in the seventh bar, there’s no way to tell whether the piece is in a major or a minor key. (From pages 12, 13.)

That’s fascinating. I had no idea. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I suggest you buy this book.

Back to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Arguably, this symphony is so famous that it’s become infamous. By that I mean it’s almost a caricature of itself, a parody. People rarely know it past those iconic first four notes.

And that’s a shame because Symphony No. 5 in C. Minor Op. 67 is Continue reading