The four most famous notes in the world! Thus begins Beethoven’s immortal Symphony No 5 in C minor Opus 67. Masterpiece after masterpiece has led up to this masterpiece and incredibly more of them follow, such was the fertility of Beethoven’s genius.
I found a link included below of Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Omnibus Theater lecture for the American public, which appeared on the very new medium – television. I think you’ll also find it interesting to watch the forward to his actual lecture describing the history of the series. Bernstein’s explanation of the first movement and a little bit of the second is wonderful. As a composer himself, he understands the creative process and is able to examine the struggle that Beethoven went through as he composed.
Leonard Bernstein on Beethoven 5th first movement
The second movement is a set of variations on two seemingly different themes, the first – a gentle one in A flat major, and the second a more boisterous martial one in C major. The second theme however, to my ear, seems to grow out of the first theme opening material. As you listen, try to be carried away by the different characters of the variations. This is one of my favorite movements in Beethoven’s orchestral works.
The third movement begins with a very mysterious, almost eerie theme, played by the cellos and bases. Curiously, if you transposed this theme into the key of G minor rather than the key of C minor in which it’s written, you would have the exact opening theme of the last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Homage I’m sure. This movement has all the features of a very expanded scherzo movement, although Beethoven doesn’t mark it as such. It brings back as a main motive the four note rhythm of the opening of the symphony, the most famous four notes in music as we have observed. This section alternates between the eerie opening and this powerful four note motive. It eventually seems to dissolve until it melts into a very raucous trio section once again begun by the cellos and basses. The opening section then repeats and at the end of it begins one of the most remarkable transitions in music. Over a very long suspended C in the lower instruments are hints of our four note motive. It’s so suspenseful with the violins seemingly playing or toying with the harmony until it finally hits the dominant chord and a great crescendo begins and we gloriously enter the last movement, a brilliant celebration in C major. Just revel in its glory! And then all of a sudden Beethoven reintroduces quietly our four note theme that we heard in the third movement that reminds us of the opening of the symphony. Remember? This provides an incredible unity to the entire symphony. There’s nothing that can be said about how this piece ends. It’s magnificent, glorious, inspirational, and full of hope for all of us. Beethoven, our guide!
Beethoven Symphony No 5 in C minor Opus 67