Beethovens 5th
The Great Fifth Symphony

Beethoven's 5th. Probably the most well-know piece of western music in the world.

The ridiculously famous opening four notes...

...are so ingrained in people's minds that they've become an icon of classical music.

And no wonder - it's a catchy rhythm which Beethoven uses as the base for the entire symphony (which, by the way, only gets better and better from the start)!

I personally really like Beethoven's Fifth, and especially the fact that it's so popular amongst people who wouldn't say they're classical music fans. It's many people's first introduction to this magical world of beautiful sounds.

Let's take a quick look at how the Beethoven's 5th came into being...


Beethovens 5th Symphony

Beethoven started sketching out ideas for his 5th symphony in 1804. They were pretty boring and not very unique, though.

But Beethoven has a reputation for constantly editing and experimenting with his pieces, taking a long time to sharpen and simplify them.

And this is exactly what he did with the fifth!

Over the next four years he wrote different ideas out again and again, honing and polishing what he already had.

He finished the final draft in 1808 - four years after he started. I hope he threw a party to celebrate!

The premiere in Vienna didn't go too well though.

The fifth symphony was at the end of a loooooong concert packed with lots of other new Beethoven pieces. By the time the fifth started, the audience was too tired and cold from the icy winter outside to listen properly. They didn't see how great it was.

It wasn't until E.T.A. Hoffman (who wrote the story of the delightful Nutcracker Ballet) wrote an incredibly glowing review of Beethoven's 5th that the public started to really appreciate it.

Hoffman raved about how perfectly interconnected and flowing the symphony was. He proclaimed it as the masterwork of a genius. I find it hard to disagree!!

Soon everyone appreciated it as one of the most important musical works of all-time.


Apparently Beethoven described the famous opening notes as "Fate knocking on your door". I like this description, but most people nowadays think it's just a rumor.

Nevertheless, rhythm is an important part of Beethovens 5th symphony.

A rhythm is very identifiable, even if the composer changes all the notes and the harmonies. Because of this, Beethoven use the rhythm of the Fate motif loads of times all throughout the 5th symphony, to tie it together.

The Fifth symphony, like all symphonies at the time, is in four movements...

  • 1st Movement, Sonata. The powerful first movement opens with the Fate motif, which runs through it in one way or another throughout.

    It's strikingly dramatic, with wonderful shades of orchestral color, from the dark trombones to the sweet woodwinds. The sheer force of Beethoven's music is on top form here!

  • 2nd movement, Andante (walking pace). This lyrical movement is a lot calmer than the first, but still has some grand moments. It has two main themes which intertwine and have a little "theme and variations" game.
  • 3rd Movement (Scherzo). We get back to the dramatic stuff here. Beethoven treats us to a delightfully dark scherzo.

    It's technically in 3/4 time (like a waltz), but Beethoven slows it down and puts huge emphasis on the first beat so it sounds more like a thundering slow march in 4/4 time (the same as with the 2nd movement of the Ninth Symphony)

  • 4th movement (Finale). The explosively joyful finale is my favorite movement of the fifth symphony. The music sounds like a grand march, perhaps celebrating Fate's defeat (or maybe acceptance of Fate...). Either way, it's great fun to listen to.

    Here's an awesome video of the Finale, performed by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Paavo Jaervi:

You might also want to have a listen to Beethoven's 7th Symphony...

A Good Start

The famous opening rhythm could well be the most well-known musical phrase in the world.

Conductors like to squabble over how to play it, since it sets the tone for the entire symphony (slow? majestically? speeding up? darkly?). For your perusal, I've got here four different interpretations of those famous first four notes...

  1. Arturo Toscanini:
  2. Eric Leinsdorf:
  3. Claudio Abbado:
  4. Otto Klemperer:

Which one do you like?


Since Beethoven's 5th Symphony is so famous, there have been dozens and dozens of recordings over the last century. But I'm just going to choose one to recommend to you.

Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has a blistering recording of the fifth from 1982 on Deutsche Grammophon. This is a superb interpretation full of force and fate.

Recommended Recording

I'll leave you with the glorious interpretation of Beethoven's 5th from Otto Klemperer, which was also included on the Golden Disc sent into space on the Voyager probe.

I'd say it's a fair representation of humankind's achievements, wouldn't you?

You might now want to look at my overviews of other Beethoven symphonies:

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