Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beethoven's Fate

Work had already begun on the C Minor Fifth by April 1804. It was completed by the beginning of 1808. The first performance took place in the Theater An Der Wien on 22nd December 1808.
This symphony is one of the most popular and well known compositions in all of European classical music. This is one of the most frequently played symphonies of all. It is in four movements: an opening sonata allegro con brio followed by an andante, a scherzo with trio and attaca to the finale.
This symphony has become popular due to the terse nature of the themes and because of the artistic unity of the work; also due to the fact to a large degree of Anton Schindler's oft-quoted story much after Beethoven's death that Beethoven described the opening of the first movement as "Thus Fate knocks at the door!". Ever since, this symphony has been supposed to portray the struggle with fate on both personal and universal terms.
While composing this symphony, Beethoven continuously interrupted this work to prepare others like Fidelio, Appassionata sonata, the Razumovsky string quartets, the violin concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven was in his mid thirties during this time and his personal life was troubled by increasing deafness. Even the world was troubled by the Napoleonic wars, political turmoil in Austria and the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon's troops in 1805.
The Fifth Symphony is scored for 23 first violins, 14 second violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (B flat and C major), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 french horns (in E flat and C major), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor and bass) and two pairs of timpani (tuned in G and C). A performance dictated by the tempi markings should last a minimum of thirty three minutes if the repeats are ignored in the first and last movements.
The Allegro Con Brio is ferocious. It begins by a distinctive four-note motif twice, allegorical to "fate knocking at the door". Hence I too call this symphony , "FATE". This motif appears frequently in popular culture too from disco to rock and roll; to appearance in films and TV. During the second world war, BBC used the four-note motif to inroduce its radio news broadcasts because the rhythm it denotes is the morse code letter 'V'.
Some conductors take this motif 'molto ritardando' with the fermata over the fourth note justifying this. Following the first bars, Beethoven uses imitations to expand the fate theme; these imitations forming a single, flowing melody. A very short fortissimo bridge is played by the french horns that takes place before a second theme is introduced. This second theme is in E Flat Major, the relative major to the home key and is lyrical. the codetta is again based on the four-note motif. The development section follows using modulation sequences and imitation including the short fortissimo bridge. During the recapitulation, there is a brief solo beautiful passage for the oboe in improvisatory style and the movement ends in a massive coda.
The Andante is delicate. It is in A Flat Major. It is lyrical in double variation form. Two themes are presented and varied in alternation. After these variations, there is a long coda. The first theme is a melody in unison by the violas and cellos with accompaniment by the double basses. The second theme is harmonic with support by clarinets, bassoons, first and second violins with a triplet arpeggio in the violas and double bass. This is followed up by a third theme with thirty-second notes in the violas and cellos with a counterphrase running in the flute, oboe and bassoon. Then, there is an interlude where the whole orchestra joins in a fortissimo leading to a series of crescendoes and a coda to close the movement.
When the scherzo arrives, we understand that the unity extends through the entire work. The second subject of the scherzo again beats out the hammering opening rhythm of the symphony in its first bars, this time on a single note. Such inner unity which enables a work of art to live must spring ultimately from the creative mind with a constant interplay between intuition and hard grinding work. This movement is in ternary form consisting of a scherzo and trio. It follows the traditional mould of classic symphonic third movements but breaks out of the minuet-trio hemisphere. Even with Beethoven's early works, the scherzo is followed by a contrasting trio section, a return of the scherzo and a coda. But this is so different that it towers over all scherzo-trios written before, with especially the strings pizzicato touch, an effect that was brilliantly mirrored again by Tchaikovsky in his F Minor Fourth. The usual classical symphonies as I told earlier employed the minuet and trio as the third movement; but Beethoven chose to use a new scherzo and trio form. The movement returns to the opening key of C Minor played by the cellos and double basses. It is reminiscent of the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's G Minor Fortieth, though in a different key and range. This was discovered by Gustav Nottebohm when he examined Beethoven's sketchbook of the Fifth where 29 measures of Mozart's finale appear copied out by Beethoven at the side. Th opening theme is answered by a theme played by the clarinets, oboes and bassoons. The french horns loudly announce the main theme. The trio section is in C Major and is written contrapuntally. When the scherzo returns for the final time, it is performed by the strings pizzicato and marked 'piano'. The scherzo then contrasts this figure with the famous motif (3+1) from the first movement which takes command of the whole movement in transition... accelerando... attacca... to the Allegro
which begins triumphantly and exhilaratingly without interruption. This movement is in C Major and is significantly interspersed by a return to the hammering motif of the scherzo. The orchestra is here enriched with a piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones. This is the transition from darkness to light. It is an unusual variant of sonata; at the end of the development section, the music halts on a dominant cadence played fortissimo. Then the music continues after a pause with a quiet reprise of the horn theme of the scherzo movement. The recapitulation is then introduced by a crescendo coming out of the last bars of the interpolated scherzo section just as the same music was introduced at the opening of the movement. Haydn, in his own style, had done this in his Forty Sixth Symphony in B Major. Maybe, Beethoven had kept that at the back of his mind. Peer influence does speak somewhere. Haydn had tutored Beethoven for a short while. This finale includes a long coda in which the main themes of the movement are played in temporally compressed form. As the crescendo builds, the tempo is increased to 'presto'. The symphony ends in a magnificent style with 29 bars of C Major chords played fortissimo.
Many noteworthy conductors have disappointed while recording this symphony - a long list includes Toscanini, Furtwangler, Solti, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn,Otto Klemperer and Riccardo Muti to name a few. Two performances among many have made the grade - Herbert Von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and it is the latter which is the definitive performance because Bernstein respects and honours the repeats in both the opening movement and the finale taking the symphony to a respectable thirty eight minutes in his 1961 performance.

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