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The freeing power of Beethoven’s Fifth

News 2021-11-18

The freeing power of Beethoven’s Fifth

Ludwig van Beethoven

The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were meant to stun – they ensnare the listener, demanding full attention. But, although the four note motif is immediately recognizable to pretty much anyone, it is, after all, just the beginning. It was Beethoven’s expansion on this simple yet forceful motif that pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in music, changing not just how music is composed, but what stories it tells and what emotions it conveys.

No one is a stranger to suffering, but it’s worth questioning if Beethoven would have composed such an emotionally revealing work had he not experienced a multitude of personal crises that brought him close to the edge. From the very first notes, often referred to as “fate knocking at the door”, the listener is pulled into a rapidly unfolding series of emotions, only to arrive at a place where one can no longer distinguish which emotions are Beethoven’s and which are your own. His journey becomes a stand in for our journey, a guided path for us to reflect on our own experiences while listening to his.

From a very young age, Beethoven prioritized music above all else. He was a naturally withdrawn individual and came from a prestigious musical family, although his home life was very troubled due to an abusive father and the deaths of several siblings. Beethoven used music as an escape to a fantasy realm, a place for him to explore and create, in contrast to his bleak experience with the outer world. However, Beethoven felt his destiny was not just to write music, but to bring the highest art he was possible of creating into the world. This desire to push the limits of symphonic music resulted in an unmistakable display of his individual character throughout his Fifth Symphony.

The four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

One of the most drastic additional causes of Beethoven’s suffering was his increasing deafness. As a pianist, Beethoven would have been painfully aware of his hearing loss, especially as it diminished his ability to hear high registers first. His sudden onset of deafness coupled with his predisposed feelings of isolation drove Beethoven into a dark mental state. The only thought that could pull him away from the brink of despair was his desire to fulfill his artistic mission, to usher in a new beginning through music.

Though the Fifth Symphony begins stormy, Beethoven compels listeners to search for moments of light even when encompassed by emotional darkness. The first movement is often described as “tumultuous” – the opening four note motif reoccurs constantly, but the hasty changes of harmony exude both fear and defiance, two conflicting yet omnipresent emotions in Beethoven’s life. The second movement of the symphony is a welcome respite after the ricocheting sounds of the first, and reminds us beauty in some form is always present. The symphony’s guileful third movement toes the line between shadows before bursting triumphantly into the luminous fourth movement. It was uncommon at the time for a symphony beginning in a minor key to end in a major key, but Beethoven made the transition with astute purpose: “Joy follow sorrow – sunshine, rain”.

This symphony paved the way for future composers to share their most personal expressions of what it means to be human. In composing his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven freed himself from torments and restraints that prevented himself, and music, from moving forward. The remarkable gift of this symphony is its power to do the same for listeners – it frees us from our own constraints, propelling us out of darkness and into light.

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