Listening Guide – Beethoven’s Symphony No.5

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven is one of the best-known classical composers and his music has been played by orchestras all over the world for more than 200 years! He was famous in his lifetime, despite being often difficult, stubborn, and bad-tempered. He was completely deaf for the last 10 years of his life, but continued to compose the most amazing music.

In the late 1700s a composer or musician would probably earn a living by being employed by the church or a local aristocrat. Initially Beethoven did too, but he was a difficult, headstrong, argumentative character who believed in the new democratic ideas which were taking hold in Europe and led to the French Revolution in 1789. So, although he started off working for aristocrats, he couldn’t stand being expected to play background music for social occasions. He wrote a letter to his employer, Prince Lichnowsky, saying:

“What you are, you are by chance, by birth. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.”

He lost his job.

He was so absorbed in composing his music, other things didn’t seem to matter to him. Friends said he was clumsy, unkempt, and couldn’t exercise control over his household affairs. In fact the only thing he seemed to do well was compose. His friends would replace his old clothes with new ones overnight, because if they didn’t he would simply wear the same ones over and over again. Beethoven never even noticed the swap.

As Beethoven’s deafness increased, he became more withdrawn and bad-tempered. And his music, which always blew apart the conventions of the day, became even more revolutionary, to a point where the audience was confused by some of his later pieces. However, when he died he was one of the most famous people in Europe and his funeral was attended by 10,000 people.

Symphony No. 5

A symphony is a set of four pieces (called movements) for orchestra, each with a different character.

  • First movement: fast
  • Second movement: slow and expressive
  • Third movement: dance-like
  • Fourth movement: fast and lively

Symphonies were developed by composers living before Beethoven and were often polite, entertaining pieces played in concerts where the audience would be chatting and eating. Beethoven made them much more emotional and personal, and expected them to be listened to attentively because he felt he was dealing with ideas and emotions which were very important.

His symphonies are dramatic: by turns beautiful, angry, serious, lively, calm, and every other emotion you can imagine. He expanded the number of players and instruments which could be used in the orchestra, being one of the first to include trombones in the Fifth Symphony and a choir in the Ninth.

If you want to get to know the Fifth Symphony, perhaps listen to one movement at a time noticing the different feelings in the music as they change. See what pictures come to mind as you listen inspired by the different musical characters.

First movement

The London Philharmonic Orchestra perform the first movement, conducted by Edward Gardner

This is the most famous movement, with its opening four notes being iconic and instantly recognisable. One writer claims this idea is ‘fate knocking at the door’, another says Beethoven heard it sung by a bird whilst he walked in the park.

Whichever one it was, the four-note idea appears almost continuously throughout the movement, giving it an intense rhythmic drive. It can jump between different members of the orchestra as if they’re having a fast and frenetic conversation. There are moments which sound triumphant, others which are more serene and even places which sound mysterious. There are also dramatic silences where the listener is wondering what might happen next (Beethoven often used dramatic silences!).

Listen out for the beautiful slow oboe solo about two thirds of the way through (at 4’26” in the recording above). The whole orchestra stops for this moment of relaxation before the relentless pace starts again.

Second movement

A completely different start to this movement in comparison to the first. The beautiful opening melody is played by the violas, but Beethoven can’t resist building to a loud climax which sounds quite military, before the music calms down again.

You’ll hear the opening idea several times, and each time Beethoven arranges it slightly differently: it gets more elaborate, the accompaniment changes and it is played by different instruments. See if you can spot any of the differences!

Third movement

Before Beethoven was born the third movement of a symphony would have been based on a minuet – which was a dance a bit like a waltz. But Beethoven makes his third movement much quicker than could be danced to and much more dramatic. If you feel like it, you could see if it’s possible to dance or move around to it? The first section starts with the low strings playing a quick, quiet and mysterious idea, joined by the woodwinds. This is interrupted by the brass who play a forceful, military idea.

The middle section is happy and busy. The opening section returns, though listen out for the changes – there is a pizzicato version of the opening idea (where the string players pluck the strings with their fingers instead of using their bows) which sounds like someone is tiptoeing around! Instead of the movement stopping completely towards the end, it builds up leading directly and dramatically into the fourth movement.

Fourth movement

The London Philharmonic Orchestra perform the fourth movement, conducted by Edward Gardner

This opening is fantastically triumphant. It is like all the short but loud military moments in the previous three movements have finally come together have taken over the music to make something joyous and overwhelming. The sense of power and triumph is enhanced because, for the first time in the symphony, the trombones are allowed to play! They’ve been sitting at the back of the orchestra silent for the first three movements, which means playing loudly at the start of this movement makes a massive impact. There is still a sense of drama during this movement, but overall it is positive and joyous. See if you can spot the moment where Beethoven brings back an idea from the third movement – it’s about 2/3 of the way through.

Other pieces you might like by Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 14 ‘Moonlight’, first movement
Beethoven wrote lots of piano music, and this piece is one of his most famous. It is quiet, intense and beautiful!

Rage over a lost penny Op. 129
Beethoven was known as a fabulous pianist who pushed the piano to its limits (he was even known to have broken strings sometimes when he played!). See whether you think he’s really angry about losing that penny in this piece, or whether it’s just a bit of fun!

Symphony No. 9, fourth movement
This is a massive piece both in terms of the number of people who perform it (as it includes a choir) and the full symphony lasts over an hour. The last movement includes the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ and the whole piece was written when Beethoven was completely deaf.

This resource was written by John Webb