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