Beethoven Akademie 1808

Program Notes

SAT FEB 29, 4–10 pm (with dinner break 6:30–8:30 pm)
SUN MAR 1, 2:30–8:30 pm (with dinner break 5–7 pm)

JOYNER HORN mezzo-soprano
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director

BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, Pastoral

  • Awakening of Serene Impressions on Arriving in the Country
  • Scene by the Brook
  • Jolly Gathering of Country Folk—
  • Thunderstorm—
  • Shepherd’s Hymn and Thankful Feelings After the Storm


Ah! Perfido, Scene and Aria, Op. 65


“Gloria” from Mass in C Major, Op. 86


Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58


The concert will continue at 8:30 pm Saturday and 7 pm Sunday with the following:


Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

  • Allegro con brio
  • Andante con moto
  • Allegro
  • Allegro
Short Break


“Sanctus” from Mass in C Major, Op. 86

Improvised Fantasia


Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C Minor,
Op. 80, Choral Fantasy

  • Adagio
  • Finale: Allegro—Allegretto ma non troppo, quasi andante con moto



from Music Director Louis Langrée

Music history is full of famous composers, artists, venues and ensembles, but music history remembers very few concert programs. This weekend we will get to experience by far the most remembered concert program in Western Classical music history—Beethoven’s 1808 Akademie, a program that transformed the course of music in the 19th century. It featured four premieres on the same evening and brought together in that same concert all genres of music: instrumental, sacred, theatrical and orchestral. All forces united at the end to celebrate humankind.

This will be my third opportunity to lead this program. Each time I find something new to experience within Beethoven’s epic journey. During the 1808 performance, Beethoven improvised a piano fantasia. We will never truly know what he played; however, we are delighted to welcome back Inon Barnatan, who will not only play the piano concerto and the Choral Fantasy, but will also improvise a fantasia, just like Beethoven did in 1808! We feel privileged that the splendid Dorothea Röschmann will join us to perform the dramatic Ah! Perfido.

Each performance of the Akademie is a bold and unique experience: more than the music, Beethoven wanted this program to deliver a message of universal fraternity.

Photo of Beethoven for Program Notes

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven is a major composer from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Known for:

  • Symphonies No. 1-9 
  • Piano Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight Sonata)
  • Für Elise

Beethoven is known for a composing a vital catalog of music. This is merely a tiny list of popular selections in comparison to the breadth of his work.

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, Pastoral

  • Work composed: 1807–1808
  • Premiere: December 22, 1808, Vienna, conducted by the composer
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 32 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1897, Frank Van der Stucken conducting | Most recent: February 2012, Ludovic Morlot conducting | With these concerts, this work has now been led here by all CSO Music Directors.
  • Duration: approx. 39 minutes

More an Expression of Feeling Than Painting

There is a fine and often fluid line that separates program and absolute music. Usually composers intend their work to be heard either with some extra-musical reference or as a universe unto itself, but Beethoven tried to link both worlds in his “Pastoral” Symphony. This work, with its birdcalls and its horncalls, its thunder, wind and rain, its peasant dances and babbling brooks, is decidedly and lovably programmatic. Yet the composer insisted that the Symphony is “more an expression of feeling than painting”—that it is more pure, abstract emotion than mere imitations of various familiar country noises. It is, in truth, both.

The extra-musical associations of the “Pastoral” Symphony run far deeper than its simulations of nightingales and thunder storms. Actually, there are at least three simultaneous levels of “meaning” here. The first and most obvious of these three is the evocation of natural noises, but this was only a point of departure for Beethoven into the second degree of reference in this work, since these woodland sounds were simply the external manifestations of what was, for him, a much deeper reality: that God was to be found in every tree, in every brook; indeed, that God and Nature are, if not the same, certainly indivisible. The third plane on which the “Pastoral” Symphony exists is heavily influenced by the other two. This third level, the purely musical, reflects the stability, the calm and the sense of the infinite that Beethoven perceived in Nature. “Oh, the sweet stillness of the woods!” he wrote. The “Pastoral” Symphony, the most gentle and child-like work Beethoven ever composed, grants not only a deeper understanding of the great composer, but also, through his vision, a heightened awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

Impressions of Nature

Beethoven gave each of the five movements of his “Pastoral” Symphony a title describing its general character. The first movement, filled with verdant sweetness and effusive good humor, is headed “Awakening of Serene Impressions on Arriving in the Country.” The violins present a simple theme that pauses briefly after only four measures, as though the composer were alighting from a coach and taking a deep breath of the fragrant air before beginning his walk along a shaded path. The melody grows more vigorous before it quiets to lead almost imperceptibly to the second theme, a descending motive played by violins above a rustling string accompaniment. Again, the spirits swell and then relax before the main theme returns to occupy most of the development. The recapitulation returns the themes of the exposition in more richly orchestrated settings.

The second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” continues the mood and undulant figuration of the preceding movement. The music of this movement is almost entirely without chromatic harmony, and exudes an air of tranquility amid pleasing activity. The form is a sonata-allegro whose opening theme starts with a fragmentary idea in the first violins sounded above a rich accompaniment. The second theme begins with a descending motion, like that of the first movement, but then turns back upward to form an inverted arch. A full development section utilizing the main theme follows. The recapitulation recalls the earlier themes with enriched orchestration and leads to a most remarkable coda. In the closing pages of this movement, the rustling accompaniment ceases while all Nature seems to hold its breath to listen to the songs of three birds—the nightingale, the dove and the cuckoo. Twice this tiny avian concert is performed before the movement comes quietly to its close. When later Romantic composers sought stylistic and formal models for their works it was to Beethoven that they turned, and when program music was the subject, this coda was their object.

Beethoven titled the scherzo “Jolly Gathering of Country Folk,” and filled the music with a rustic bumptiousness and simple humor that recall a hearty if somewhat ungainly country dance. The central trio shifts to duple meter for a stomping dance before the scherzo returns. The festivity is halted in mid-step by the sound of distant thunder portrayed by the rumblings of the low strings. Beethoven built a convincing storm scene here through the tempestuous use of the tonal and timbral resources of the orchestra that stands in bold contrast to the surrounding movements of this Symphony. As the storm passes away over the horizon, the silvery voice of the flute leads directly into the finale, “Shepherd’s Hymn and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.” The clarinet and then the horn sing the unpretentious melody of the shepherd, which returns, rondo-fashion, to support the form of the movement. The mood of well-being and contented satisfaction continues to the end of this wonderful work.

Ah! Perfido, Scene and Aria, Op. 65

  • Work composed: 1796
  • Premiere: November 21, 1796, Leipzig, Germany, Josepha Duschek as soloist.
  • Instrumentation: soprano soloist, flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 7 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: December 1909, Leopold Stokowski conducting; Tilly Koenen, soprano | Most recent: September 2005, Paavo Järvi conducting; Camilla Tilling, soprano | Ah! Perfido was also featured in the very first year of the May Festival, 1873, Theodore Thomas conducting the Theodore Thomas Orchestra; E.R. Dexter, soprano.
  • Duration: approx. 15 minutes

In Mozart’s Footsteps

In April 1789, Mozart and Prince Karl Lichnowsky journeyed together to Prague, where Figaro and Don Giovanni had been received with great enthusiasm two years earlier. Mozart took the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the composer Franz Duschek and his wife, Josepha, a fine soprano, and during his visit, the Duscheks subjected their Viennese colleague to a friendly detention, locking him in a summer house until he completed a piece especially for Josepha. The result was the splendid concert aria Bella mia fiamma (K. 528). Mozart and Prince Lichnowsky traveled on to Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin before returning to Vienna.

Seven years later, Prince Lichnowsky took in tow another young musician who was seeking to spread his fame as a composer—Ludwig van Beethoven. During those early years of his residency in Vienna, Beethoven was celebrated as an excellent pianist but was less well known for his creative work, and the 1796 tour through central Europe with Lichnowsky was intended to give audiences a more rounded view of his talent. The itinerary—Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin—was the same as Mozart’s in 1789. Beethoven enjoyed a solid success in Prague and did well financially in that city, writing on February 19th to his brother Johann, “My art is bringing me friends and respect. What more can I want? This time I shall also earn considerable money.” Among Beethoven’s newly acquired friends were the Duscheks, who took a keen interest in him, and diligently shared their enthusiasm with some of Prague’s most important citizens. In appreciation, Beethoven wrote for Josepha a concert aria of stunning difficulty whose model was Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma.

Vocal Virtuosity

The piece, Ah! Perfido (Op. 65), was cast in the 18th-century form known as aria monumentale, a setting of a single scene in the style of grand opera. (The work’s high opus number is the result of its delayed publication, in 1805.) Beethoven chose for his text an excerpt from Pietro Metastasio’s Achille in Sciro, one of that librettist’s most popular and frequently set creations. Though largely conventional in its musical vocabulary, with only a few specifically Beethovenian touches, Ah! Perfido is one of the most imposing challenges in the soprano’s repertory. Frau Duschek negotiated it successfully at the work’s premiere in Leipzig in November 1796, but another early interpreter admitted that she was “overcome by terrific stage fright, almost suffered a heart attack, and completely ruined the piece.” This vocal extravagance mirrors the heightened emotions in the text, which tells of the feelings of a woman abandoned by her lover. In the opening recitative, she invokes the wrath of the gods against him, but in the aria repents and asks that he be spared and that she be endowed with pity. This moving and dramatic “scene and aria,” as the composer called it, is both grandly theatrical and prophetic of the expressive power that was to make Beethoven the musical lion of his age.

“Gloria” and “Sanctus” from Mass in C Major, Op. 86

  • Work composed: 1807
  • Premiere: September 13, 1807, Eisenstadt, under the composer’s direction
  • Instrumentation: SATB soloists and chorus, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, organ, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the CSO premiere of the “Gloria” and “Sanctus” from the Mass in C. The complete Mass in C has not been performed at these concerts, although it has appeared on May Festivals in 1991 and 2002.
  • Duration: Gloria: approx. 9 minutes; Sanctus: approx. 11 minutes
  • Birthday Music

Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, scion of one of the highest-ranking families in the Habsburg Empire, satisfied his nearly unquenchable desire for music by supporting one of the finest European musical establishments of the late 18th century. The next Prince, however, Anton (Nicolaus’ son) did not inherit his family’s musical tastes along with his title upon his father’s death in 1790, and he dismissed all the household musicians except a brass band for military functions. Joseph Haydn, who had supervised the music at the Esterházy palaces for almost three decades, was granted a generous pension, and he soon dashed off to London for the first of two triumphant residencies. When he returned to Austria in 1795 from his second London venture, Haydn learned that the leadership of the Esterházy family had changed yet again, having passed to Nicolaus II during his absence, and that the new Prince had revived the musical organization that had so magnificently adorned the family’s functions in earlier years. As his contribution to the renewed court musical life, Haydn was asked to write a new Mass each year for the mid-September celebration at the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt of the name-day of Nicolaus’ wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild. (Well-born Catholic children at that time were given the name of a saint being commemorated on the day of their birth. Mozart’s baptismal names, for example, begin with Johann Chrysostom because he was born on January 27th, the feast of St. John Chrysostom. Hermenegild was an obscure 6th-century saint.) Haydn composed six Masses for the Princess’ birthdays between 1796 and 1802; they are some of his most magnificent creations. Johann Nepomuk Hummel was engaged as the Esterházy music director in 1804, and he wrote the Masses for the next three years. In 1807, the commission for the annual Mass went to Ludwig van Beethoven, who had maintained a respectful if somewhat cool relationship with Haydn after studying with him briefly upon settling in Vienna in 1792.

What Have You Done Now?

Beethoven was at first hesitant to accept the Esterházy commission, perhaps intimidated by Haydn’s earlier compositions for the occasion, but by the spring of 1807, he had agreed to the proposal and was at work on the piece. Progress on the Mass was slowed early in the summer by headaches and digestive distress (his physician diagnosed gout and recommended the sensible regimen of “taking the baths, working little, sleeping, eating well, and drinking spirits in moderation”), but the work was completed by late August and the premiere date set for September 13th. Beethoven arrived expectantly in Eisenstadt in time for the final preparations, but he sensed bad omens for the upcoming performance when he was installed in damp, uncomfortable quarters away from the castle and when most of the alto section of the chorus skipped the dress rehearsal. Things, not surprisingly, went poorly, at least according to the event’s patron. “A German pigsty,” Prince Nicolaus is reported to have grumbled about the Bonn-born Beethoven’s latest creation. “My dear Beethoven,” he inquired at the post-concert reception, “what have you done now?” Despite such noble invective, Beethoven thought highly of his Mass in C major, his first setting of texts from his paternal but not-closely-followed Catholicism, and he programmed the Gloria and Sanctus on his overwhelming Vienna concert of December 22, 1808.

Given the musical precedents and the well-established traditions of the name-day observances at Eisenstadt, Beethoven had little choice but to follow the model of Haydn’s late Masses in his own work: in scale (which the Missa Solemnis of 1818–1823 would dwarf), in instrumentation (most notably the omission of trombones, which would have been expected in Vienna but were eschewed in Eisenstadt), in the symphonic integration of voices and orchestra, in favoring the vocal ensemble over solo arias, and in balancing the chorus against the soloists.

Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58

  • Work composed: 1804–1806
  • Premiere: Beethoven included the Concerto No. 4 in his program of December 22, 1808, but it had first been heard at a private concert on March 5, 1807 at the palace of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz in Vienna, with the composer as soloist.
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 41 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1905, Frank Van der Stucken conducting; Josef Hofmann, pianist | Most recent: April 2015, Vassily Sinaisky conducting; Igor Levit, pianist | Among the many notable pianists who have performed this work during the CSO’s history (some more than once) are Artur Schnabel, Myra Hess, Robert Casadesus, Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau (also at New York’s Lincoln Center), Joseph Battista, Mayne Miller, Glenn Gould, Malcolm Frager, Maria Clodes, André Watts, Jeffrey Kahane, Radu Lupu and Hélène Grimaud; Ms. Grimaud was soloist for the CSO’s 2004 European Tour performances of the work.
  • Duration: approx. 34 minutes

“Music in the Time of War”

The Napoleonic juggernaut twice overran the city of Vienna. The first occupation began on November 13, 1805, less than a month after the Austrian armies had been soundly trounced by the French legions at the Battle of Ulm on October 20th. Though their entry into Vienna was peaceful, the Viennese had to pay dearly for the earlier defeat in punishing taxes, restricted freedoms and inadequate food supplies. On December 28th, following Napoleon’s fearsome victory at Austerlitz that forced the Austrian government into capitulation, the Little General left Vienna. He returned in May 1809, this time with cannon and cavalry sufficient to subdue the city by force, creating conditions that were worse than those during the previous occupation. As part of his booty and in an attempt to ally the royal houses of France and Austria, Napoleon married Marie Louise, the 18-year-old daughter of Austrian Emperor Franz. She became the successor to his first wife, Josephine, whom he divorced because she was unable to bear a child. It was to be five years—1814—before the Corsican was finally defeated and Emperor Franz returned to Vienna, riding triumphantly through the streets of the city on a huge, white Lipizzaner.

Such soul-troubling times would seem to be antithetical to the production of great art, yet for Beethoven, that ferocious libertarian, those years were the most productive of his life. Hardly had he begun one work before another appeared on his desk, and his friends recalled that he labored on several scores simultaneously during this period. Sketches for many of the works appear intertwined in his notebooks, and an exact chronology for most of the works from 1805 to 1810 is impossible. So close were the dates of completion of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, for example, that their numbers were reversed when they were given their premieres on the same giant concert. Between Fidelio, which was in its last week of rehearsal when Napoleon entered Vienna in 1805, and the music for Egmont, finished shortly after the second invasion, Beethoven composed the following major works: Piano Sonata, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”); Violin Concerto; Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos; three Quartets of Op. 59; Leonore Overture No. 3; Coriolan Overture; Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; two Piano Trios (Op. 70); Piano Sonata, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”); and many smaller songs, chamber works, and piano compositions. It is a stunning record of accomplishment virtually unmatched in the entire history of music.

“I Sat in My Place Without Moving a Muscle”

The Fourth Concerto was one of the projects of the Napoleonic years, and it seems to have been composed simultaneously with the Fifth Symphony. The two are even related in their use of a basic rhythmic motive—three short notes followed by an accented note—and may have germinated from the same conceptual seed, though with vastly different results. While almost nothing is known of the composition of the Concerto, its early performance history is well documented. Beethoven first played it “before a very select audience which had subscribed considerable amounts for the benefit of the author,” according to one contemporary report. The private event took place at the Viennese palace of Prince Lobkowitz, who returned to the city shortly after Napoleon evacuated in 1805. He promoted two private concerts in March 1806 of music exclusively by Beethoven, and presented the composer with all the proceeds, a refutation of the myth that Beethoven was not appreciated in his own time. An account of the elegant event in the appropriately titled Journal des Luxus was typical of many reviews Beethoven received during his life. The writer noted his “wealth of ideas, bold originality, and abundance of power, the special merits of his muse, which were clearly present in these concerts. But some hearers blamed the neglect of a noble simplicity and a too fertile profusion of ideas, which, because of their quantity, are not always sufficiently fused and elaborated; hence their effect is frequently that of an unpolished diamond.”

Because opportunities for public concerts were so few during those troubled times, Beethoven was unable to perform the Concerto in public until the Akademie concert December 22, 1808, nearly two years after its private premiere. Reports on the quality of Beethoven’s playing at the time differed. J.F. Reichardt wrote, “He truly sang on his instrument with a profound feeling of melancholy that pervaded me, too.” The composer and violinist Ludwig Spohr, however, commented, “It was by no means an enjoyment [to hear him], for, in the first place, the piano was woefully out of tune, which, however, troubled Beethoven little for he could hear nothing of it; and, secondly, of the former so-much-admired excellence of the virtuoso scarcely anything was left, in consequence of his total deafness.... I felt moved with the deepest sorrow at so hard a destiny.” The Fourth Concerto was consistently neglected in the years following its creation in favor of the Third and Fifth Concertos. After Beethoven’s two performances, it was not heard again until Felix Mendelssohn played and conducted the work with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on November 3, 1836. Robert Schumann, who was at that revival, wrote, “I have received a pleasure from it such as I have never enjoyed, and I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing—afraid of making the least noise.”

The Piano Enters the Romantic Age

Of the nature of the Fourth Concerto, Milton Cross wrote, “[Here] the piano concerto once and for all shakes itself loose from the 18th century. Virtuosity no longer concerns Beethoven at all; his artistic aim here, as in his symphonies and quartets, is the expression of deeply poetic and introspective thoughts.” The mood is established immediately at the outset of the work by a hushed, prefatory phrase for the soloist. The form of the movement, vast yet intimate, begins to unfold with the ensuing orchestral introduction, which presents the rich thematic material: the pregnant main theme, with its small intervals and repeated notes; the secondary themes—a melancholy strain with an arch shape and a grand melody with wide leaps; and a closing theme of descending scales. The soloist re-enters to enrich the themes with elaborate figurations. The central development section is haunted by the rhythmic figuration of the main theme (three short notes and an accented note). The recapitulation returns the themes, and allows an opportunity for a cadenza (Beethoven composed two for this movement) before the coda, a series of glistening scales and chords that bring the movement to a joyous close.

The second movement, “one of the most original and imaginative things that ever fell from the pen of Beethoven or any other musician,” according to Sir George Grove, starkly opposes two musical forces—the stern, unison summons of the strings and the gentle, touching replies of the piano. Franz Liszt compared this music to Orpheus taming the Furies, and the simile is warranted, since both Liszt and Beethoven traced their visions to the magnificent scene in Gluck’s Orfeo where Orpheus’ music charms the very fiends of Hell. In the Concerto, the strings are eventually subdued by the entreaties of the piano, which then gives forth a wistful little song filled with quivering trills. After only the briefest pause, a high-spirited and long-limbed rondo-finale is launched by the strings to bring this Concerto, one of Beethoven’s greatest compositions, to a stirring close.


Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

  • Work composed: 1804-1808
  • Premiere: December 22, 1808, Vienna, conducted by the composer
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 53 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: February 1895, Anton Seidl conducting | Most recent: November 2013, Louis Langrée conducting | Every Music Director in the CSO’s history has conducted this work at least once during his tenure; the symphony has also been performed on U.S. tours, for Parks concerts, and even at Fountain Square (Erich Kunzel conducting).
  • Duration: approx. 31 minutes

Locus Classicus of Orchestral Music

Surprisingly, for this Symphony that serves as the locus classicus of orchestral music, little is known about its creation. There are vague hints that it may have been occasioned by an aborted love affair with either Therese von Brunswick or Giulietta Guicciardi. The theory has been advanced that it was influenced by a surge of patriotism fueled by an Austrian loss to the Napoleonic juggernaut. Even the famous remark attributed to Beethoven about the opening motive representing “Fate knocking at the door” is probably apocryphal, an invention of either Anton Schindler or Ferdinand Ries, two young men, close to the composer in his last years, who later published their often-untrustworthy reminiscences of him.

It is known that the time of the creation of the Fifth Symphony was one of intense activity for Beethoven. The four years during which the work was composed also saw the completion of a rich variety of other works: Piano Sonatas, Op. 53, 54 and 57; Fourth Piano Concerto; Fourth and Sixth Symphonies; Violin Concerto; the first two versions of Fidelio; Rasumovsky Quartets, Op. 59; Coriolan Overture; Mass in C Major, Op. 86; and Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69. As was his practice with many of his important works, Beethoven revised and rewrote the Fifth Symphony for years.

So completely did composition occupy Beethoven’s thoughts that he sometimes ignored the necessities of daily life. Concern with his appearance, eating habits, cleanliness, even his conversation, all gave way before his composing. There are many reports of his trooping the streets and woods of Vienna humming, singing, bellowing, penning a scrap of melody, and being, in general, oblivious to the people or places around him. (One suspects that his professed love of Nature grew in part from his need to find a solitary workplace free from distractions and the prying interest of his fellow Viennese.) This titanic struggle with musical tones produced such mighty monuments as the Fifth Symphony. With it, and with the Third Symphony completed only four years before, Beethoven launched music and art into the world of Romanticism.

Gateway to Romanticism

In the history of music, Beethoven stands, Janus-faced, as the great colossus between two ages and two philosophies. The formal perfection of the preceding Classical period finds its greatest fulfillment in his works, which at the same time contain the root of the cathartic emotional experience from which grew the art of the 19th century. Beethoven himself evaluated his position as a creator in the following way: “Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life...the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” The Fifth Symphony is indeed such a “mediator.” Its message of victory through struggle, which so deeply touches both heart and mind, is achieved by a near-perfect balance of musical technique and passionate sentiment unsurpassed in the history of music. This Symphony was the work that won for Beethoven international renown. Despite a few early misunderstandings undoubtedly due to its unprecedented concentration of energy, it caught on very quickly, and was soon recognized in Europe, England and America as a pathbreaking achievement. Its popularity has never waned.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, more than any work in the musical repertory, is the archetypal example of the technique and content of the form. Its overall structure is not one of four independent essays linked simply by tonality and style, as in the typical 18th-century example, but is rather a carefully devised whole in which each of the movements serves to carry the work inexorably toward its end. The progression from minor to major, from dark to light, from conflict to resolution is at the very heart of the “meaning” of this Symphony. The triumphant, victorious nature of the final movement as the logical outcome of all that preceded it established a model for the symphonies of the Romantic era. The psychological progression toward the finale—the relentless movement toward a life-affirming close—is one of the most important technical and emotional legacies Beethoven left to his successors. Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler—their symphonies are indebted to this one (and to the Ninth Symphony, as well) for the concept of how such a creation could be structured, and in what manner it should engage the listener.

Struggle to Victory

The opening gesture is the most famous beginning in all of classical music. It establishes the stormy temper of the Allegro by presenting the germinal cell from which the entire movement grows. Though it is possible to trace this memorable four-note motive through most of the measures of the movement, the esteemed English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey pointed out that the power of the music is not contained in this fragment, but rather in the “long sentences” Beethoven built from it. The key to appreciating Beethoven’s formal structures lies in being aware of the way in which the music moves constantly from one point of arrival to the next, from one sentence to the next. It is in the careful weighting of successive climaxes through harmonic, rhythmic and instrumental resources that Beethoven created the enormous energy and seeming inevitability of this monumental movement. The gentler second theme derives from the opening motive, and gives only a brief respite in the headlong rush through the movement. It provides the necessary contrast while doing nothing to impede the music’s flow. The development section is a paragon of cohesion, logic and concision. The recapitulation roars forth after a series of breathless chords that pass from woodwinds to strings and back. The stark hammer-blows of the closing chords bring the movement to its powerful close.

The form of the second movement is a set of variations on two contrasting themes. The first theme, presented by violas and cellos, is sweet and lyrical in nature; the second, heard in horns and trumpets, is heroic. The ensuing variations on the themes alternate to produce a movement by turns gentle and majestic.
The following Scherzo returns the tempestuous character of the opening movement, as the four-note motto from the first movement is heard again in a brazen setting led by the horns. The fughetta, the “little fugue,” of the central trio is initiated by the cellos and basses. The Scherzo returns with the mysterious tread of the plucked strings, after which the music wanes until little more than a heartbeat from the timpani remains. Then begins another accumulation of intensity, first gradually, then more quickly, as a link to the finale, which arrives with a glorious proclamation, like brilliant sun bursting through ominous clouds.

The finale, set in the triumphant key of C major, is jubilant and martial. (Robert Schumann saw here the influence of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, one of the prominent composers of the French Revolution.) The sonata form proceeds apace. At the apex of the development, however, the mysterious end of the scherzo is invoked to serve as the link to the return of the main theme in the recapitulation. It also recalls and compresses the emotional journey of the entire Symphony. The closing pages repeat the cadence chords extensively to discharge the work’s enormous accumulated energy.

Concerning the effect of the “struggle to victory” symbolized by the structure of the Fifth Symphony, a quote that Beethoven scribbled in a notebook of the Archduke Rudolf, one of his aristocratic piano and composition students, is pertinent: “Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that ... the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”

Improvised Fantasia

  • Instrumentation: solo piano

Beethoven at the Keyboard

Beethoven’s first fame was gained as a pianist noted for the unbounded invention and emotional flamboyance of his improvisations. The passionate, untamed quality of his playing made him a celebrity with public and musicians alike soon after he settled in Vienna in 1792, and drew from the prominent Czech composer Václav Tomášek the admission that “his grand style of playing had an extraordinary effect on me. I felt so shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano.” Beethoven was largely self-taught as a pianist, and he did not follow in the model of sparkling technical perfection for which Mozart was well remembered in Vienna, having died only a few months before Beethoven’s arrival. He was vastly more impetuous and less precise at the keyboard, as Harold Schonberg described him in his study of The Great Pianists:

[His playing] was overwhelming not so much because Beethoven was a great virtuoso (which he probably wasn’t), but because he had an ocean-like surge and depth that made all other playing sound like the trickle of a rivulet.... No piano was safe with Beethoven. There is plenty of evidence that Beethoven was a most lively figure at the keyboard, just as he was on the podium.... [His student Carl] Czerny, who hailed Beethoven’s “titanic execution,” apologizes for his messiness [i.e., snapping strings and breaking hammers] by saying that he demanded too much from the pianos then being made. Which is very true; and which is also a polite way of saying that Beethoven banged the hell out of the piano.

Beethoven captured something of his improvisational style in the Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77, one of the few musical windows through which may be glimpsed the nature of his extemporaneous playing.

Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C Minor, Op. 80, Choral Fantasy

  • Work composed: 1808
  • Premiere: December 22, 1808, Vienna, with the composer as soloist
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, SATB soloists, SATB chorus, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
    CSO notable performances: 6 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: December 1958, Max Rudolf conducting; Stanley Babin, pianist; CCM Chorus | Most recent: September 2007, Paavo Järvi conducting; Awadagin Pratt, pianist; May Festival Chorus
  • Duration: approx. 19 minutes

A Grand Finish

The Choral Fantasy, written especially for the December 22, 1808 concert as a grand closing number, was put together so quickly in the days before the premiere that some of the players found the ink still wet on their parts at the first rehearsal. It is one of the few works Beethoven composed continuously, without setting it aside for later consideration and revision. He did not even have a text for the closing chorus when he began, and a writer (probably the then-popular poet and playwright Christoph Kuffner, though that is not certain) was drafted to devise some appropriate verses. The poem praises the powers of music—a fitting sentiment at the end of a concert that lasted well over four hours. Beethoven described the work as a “Fantasy for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as a finale.” At the performance, the opening section was actually an extended improvisation by the composer at the keyboard. He wrote down a few pages of his extemporization after the concert, and this passage seems today more like an extended introduction than a separate movement. It was undoubtedly much longer under Beethoven’s fingers in 1808; it is also the only portion of the Fantasy in the nominal tonality of C minor. The orchestra enters, rather tentatively at first, to begin a large set of spirited variations on a song titled Gegenliebe (WoO 118, “Requited Love”), which Beethoven wrote in 1794. After an Adagio section and a snappy march variation, the choral forces are trotted out to warble their praise of the art in Beethoven’s most robust village harmonies. The Choral Fantasy, open-faced and thoroughly enjoyable, makes an absolutely splendid close for an evening’s music.