Note: This is a continuation of a monthly series on what I consider to be the greatest symphonies in western classical music.
There is probably no more recognizable piece of classical music than the opening to Beethoven’s Great Fifth Symphony. The stirring four opening notes are the first classical composition I recall hearing. Naturally, the first movement is my favorite. It has been described as death or fate “knocking at the door” of the individual human being. Yet, the work does not give me so much a feeling of doom or inevitability as it does heroic individualism in the face of rather stormy circumstances. To that extent I find Beethoven’s Fifth to be very inspirational. Almost three-quarters through, the opening movement slows and softens in to calm meandering oboe before a punctuated resolution.
The second movement develops two themes, with a series of crescendos. It equals the opening movement in terms of intensity and boldness. It is more stately and regimented, a march at times, a passionate plea another, rather than being rambunctious like the first movement. Strings and winds are balanced. Beethoven uses the entire orchestra very well throughout this great symphony.
In the third movement, winds and horns eventually rise up to equal the string section, developing yet another theme. The movement reminds me a bit of Haydn/Mozart and shows their influence on Beethoven I think. But, it proclaims uniqueness in the piping, skipping, and dexterous orchestration. Sweeping strings giving way to flutes and other winds growing suddenly quiet. The entire orchestra is explored by the composer at a very delicate, verging on silent, orchestration. Really amazing to listen to and probably my second favorite part of the symphony after the opening.
The finale begins without pause after the third. It is triumphant; the orchestration very balanced, with a splendid build up of tension and ultimate resolution, an immediate triumph. There is no Mahlerian struggle here, this is splendid pristine heroic victory. The initial climax of the movement is a magnificent moment for the loud string section. After a few more such moments the movement, near the end of the symphony, tones down slowly into another solo bassoon and small winds section soon overwhelmed by the bold strings. A grand, emphatic, heart-pounding, pulsating end.
Beethoven’s Fifth is in many respects a bridge between the technically “classical” style of Haydn and Mozart and the more emotional style of the romantic composers that followed Beethoven. It is, therefore, a work of transcendence that not only sat the classical world on its ear at the time (1808) but became universally respected and followed later. Part of the composition’s greatness lies in how many composers were influenced by it.
As great as it is, however, Beethoven’s Fifth is not my personal choice as the best Great Fifth. In fact, it is surpassed in my mind by two other fifths. Certainly, these other fifths do not equal Beethoven’s work in its place in history, but they do surpass Beethoven at an intimate level with me. Please note, however, that I find many moments where the two symphonies I place ahead of Beethoven’s fifth are favorably comparable to (an influenced by) Beethoven.
Beethoven is certainly a strong standard, but the greatest of the Great Fifths belongs to Dmitri Shostakovich. More complex than Beethoven, at times perplexing, the themes of this symphony are examined by the whole orchestra, then clever subsections. There are long, extended high strings throughout, sometimes deeper and driving.
For me, Shostakovich captures a feeling of expanse, of distance, a great distance or openness to semi-melodic uncertainty. That is my best description of it. The crescendo about 3:30 minutes into the opening movement gives way to a slow soothing rhythmic sophisticated orchestral experience. This is followed by another masterful build of strings and horns, racing now, transformed into, first, a military march, then the main theme returns to a disintegrating and disoriented orchestra slowly giving way to a blossom of clarity, the horns guiding the strings, higher and unto a visionary moment of proclamation at about 10:20 (listen to the first 5 minutes of the link) into the movement. The main theme is restated until we reach an episode of percussion and deep horns. Then, once more, there is a sunny, valiant flute and horn supported by rhythmic strings. There are many featured solos parts throughout the course of this wonderful movement. At times beautiful, haunting, difficult, the first movement is a masterpiece all by itself. I find it emotionally rewarding and intellectually very stimulating. It ends rather quietly, with the tinkle of small bells on keyboards.
Then, deep bass strings, deep horns and suddenly high clarinets, absurdly. That’s how the second movement starts, giving way to sweeping strings again. There are moments of boldness, almost a march, then a waltz by various solo instruments. The wall of strings returns with the main theme before bass winds, strings plucked, keeping the same rhythmic beat we’ve known from the beginning. It ultimately gives way to a very Russian sounding conclusion.
The Largo features restless, searching, longing strings that go on until the whole orchestra is wrapped in this heavily romantic build, accented by the very high notes from the strong violins. Then there is a flute and harp, softly alone, creating this small quite space where once there was fullness and richness of sound. Violas and basses emerge then give way to another rich full orchestral moment, highly romantic yet tinged with agitation. Again, solo sections take root. An oboe, a clarinet, a flute, each supported on a subtle tension of light nurturing strings. The Largo finally becomes string heavy, a variation on the first movement’s theme, passionately orchestrated but ending, softly, gently fading.
The fourth movement begins bombastic, quick, intense, unrelenting, and loud, ultimately expressed very percussively until at about 3:30 a French horn brings some control amongst troubled orchestration. Strings dominate for several moments with a stirring bass undertone. Then the main theme returns in a varied incarnation to bring us to another crescendo with strings pitted against horns, unharmonious until about 10:25 when everything is resolved triumphantly with heavy percussion and the entire orchestra contributing a distinct boldness similar to Beethoven’s heroism.
Shostakovich’s Great Fifth is melodic enough to easily tolerate its modern expression. Composed in the summer of 1937 this symphony does not sound like a museum piece as Beethoven’s does to me. Shostakovich is/remains fresh and listenable. The piece is timeless, its relevance still very apparent.
Jean Sibelius wrote a Great Fifth (1915) that also surpasses Beethoven’s in my opinion. The opening is the use of light winds and horns harmonizing upon the support of bass elements with only a light touch of strings, which are soon used to raise the intensity to a full expression of orchestration. Suddenly, things are bright; a trumpet declares itself and is answered by other solo wind instruments. The strings again play with Wagnerian subtlety underneath a lovely, complex Rimsky-Korsakov-like exploration of winds. The strings are used to transform every soft moment up again into a more vigorous juxtaposition. Sibelius’ first movement also has a wonderful way of provide glimpses of the main theme, which doesn’t come until the last movement of the symphony, in the form a loud trumpet notes. Several crescendos punctuate the movement, but the climax is a reprise of the opening theme, with proud triumphs, percussion, string solidity whipping itself unto a height with which Sibelius ends.
The second movement is soft, yet rhythmic, like a fluttering butterfly, lightly drifting as it guides its flight. This becomes a very warm and rich wealth of orchestration, proceeding rapidly at times, stately at others until again elements of the finale movement’s theme come to us in a much fuller orchestration using full string sections and horns. Yet again, this gives way to the rich, romantic composition. Sibelius conveys the pristine openness of Scandinavian landscapes in such brilliant music.
The final movement is the highlight, delight, and full expression of this Great Fifth. It begins almost without pause after the middle movement, briskly racing but soft, not loud. Strings rapid, building upon to the main theme’s first magnificent expression, conveyed in confident horns on a solid string bedding. A sweet wind piece is stated just before, at about 2:10, the movement comes into the full expression of the symphony’s main theme, a call to assurance, intimate self-belief. It is one of my favorite moments of musical experience, easily matching any moment in Beethoven’s fifth. After this the orchestra almost fades away for an extended period into a muted repetition of the start of the movement, until there is a clear, soft expression of the main theme in the entire winds, ultimately wrapped in a full luscious string section performance. The final build toward the climax of the symphony is delicately constructed, pushing through a moment of troubling creation, and then bursting through to a bright, promising, hopeful climax, punctuated very effectively by a series of hard silence.
The Sibelius Great Fifth does not meander much, it is exacting, tightly constructed yet richly detailed, lasting about 30 minutes. It has more brevity than any of the other symphonies mentioned here. Its compact nature in no way diminishes the absolute pleasure I always attain from hearing it. I discovered this symphony later in my classical life. Certainly, the continual new finds of great compositions drives my taste for this musical genre.
Mahler’s Great Fifth is perhaps is his most disjointed effort. The movements don’t seem to fit together very well although, as usual with Mahler, each one has distinctive qualities that merit its elevation above most other fifth symphonies. The symphony was not well accepted in Mahler’s time and the composer despaired that it was a misunderstood work, wishing he could conduct it 50 years in the future when he felt it would be more appreciated.
Composed in five movements, the greatest moment in the symphony, which warrants repeated enjoyment, is the fourth movement Adagietto, which is also the source of a great Mahlerian controversy. The Adagietto was written by Mahler as a wonderful “love letter” to his future wife Alma, and is one of Mahler’s most famous musical passages. Though written out of love, passion, and hope to his future wife, in more recent times the movement has been associated with funeral music. It was prominently offered as part of the services at the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. It is today performed more somberly than perhaps Mahler intended.
The controversy comes with exactly how fast or slow the movement should be performed. I have three versions of this symphony in my collection and the Adagietto ranges from slightly under 9 minutes in length to just over 13 minutes in length. All of them are enjoyable experiences but I prefer Benjamin Zander’s faster interpretation, which he justifies in the excellent lecture that accompanies each of his Mahler recordings.
Beginning in 1909, this movement was performed by itself, apart from the rest of the symphony, which conductors felt was too sophisticated for contemporary audiences. Today, of course, the typical classical audience is more sophisticated and the symphony is widely accepted. Despite its seeming lack of cohesion Mahler’s fifth remains a treasure, like all his symphonic works.
Tchaikovsky composed his Great Fifth over the summer of 1888. I find it to be essentially an optimistic work. It begins solemnly enough before the orchestra moves through a series of dramatic rather violent outbursts. Many critics have interpreted the opening orchestration as a variation of the "fate" theme in Beethoven's fifth. This is followed by a movement that resembles an extended love song, my favorite part of the symphony. A French horn commands a lovely melody that is developed through rich composition. The main theme interrupts the reverie about halfway through. The third movement is a wonderful, graceful waltz and reveals how Tchaikovsky can take even the simplest musical idea and compose it into complex, full and balanced orchestration. The final movement once again establishes the main theme before resolving it in a brightly conceived triumphant march.
Critics recieved the symphony with mixed results at best. Tchaikovsky himself was not pleased with his composition and labeled it "a failure." But, the work is a solid one and has held up well through the test of time. Today it is a recognized masterpiece and performed by orchestras all over the world.