Its opening notes must be the most famous ever written, a “motto” identifying not only the composer but the whole concept of classical music. What makes four notes immortal? Is it the way they are remorselessly hammered into the listener’s ears? Never before had Beethoven addressed his audience so directly and with such force, never again was he to reduce his compositional forces to such a piercing focus as in this Fifth Symphony. The remarkably brief opening movement is utterly dominated by the ostensibly trivial “fate knocking at the door” motto; no contrasting idea is developed to compete with it. The slow variation movement consists mostly of figurative reworkings of its comforting theme, strikingly subdivided by the three trumpet-led C major interruptions that presage a happy ending. The unexpected return of the fateful motto in the third movement blocks off this view again – a delay that only sharpens the longing for deliverance in the finale. The bars leading to the final Allegro permit no break between the movements, straining with incomparable anticipatory force towards their symphonic goal: the crowning glory of C major. This movement is a cry of exultation rising above all that has gone before, with its blazing energy, with themes that always come across clearly in all their many and varied forms, and with a simply boundless joy that makes sense only from the perspective of the whole work, but is then irresistible. Like no other symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth embodies the idea of “per aspera ad astra”; like no other, it gives the impression of a psychological journey in which the traveller runs up against obstacles and has to find ways over or around them. This process of continuing development, with a certain healing effect in the music itself, is written into many of Beethoven’s works and helps to explain why they have kept their appeal for two centuries. In Beethoven’s Fifth, the whole symphony tacitly expresses this climb up the stairway to heaven.
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