Beethoven and the romantic sublime: the Fifth Symphony

There are number of reasons that it would be hard for a listener in 2015, for whom Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a the most irreproachably fixed of the standard repertoire, to recapture the experience the contemporaneous Viennese audience must have had on hearing it for the first time.  The very concert itself would be unthinkable -- held on a freezing cold day (Dec. 22, 1808) in the unheated (!) Theater an der Wien, the program included the following works: the Sixth Symphony, the aria and scene "Ah, Perfido", the Gloria movement of the C major Mass, the Fourth Piano Concerto (composer as soloist), the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus of the C major mass, an extended solo piano improvisation (also by the composer, naturally), and the Choral Fantasy.  All of this played by a pick-up orchestra of whatever musicians weren't fighting in the Napoleonic wars and who had the customary one rehearsal.  In short, it was probably an unbearable concert that you would have left in the middle of.  Or maybe this: such a concert would never have been allowed to happen in today’s cultural environment.

More significant, and maybe more elusive to us 200 years later, than these preposterously unhelpful conditions, is the work’s interpretation and subsequent reception.  This very symphony was the tipping point in a long-time-coming shift in what people thought a work of music could do, a fundamental change in modes of listening that is relevant up until our present time.  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s review of the work -- using language of his contemporary romantic philosophers Tieck, Wackenroder, Novalis -- classified it as belonging to the category of the "sublime;” "sublime" meant not in a colloquial sense or even in reference to the 90’s ska band from Long Beach, California; but rather in a philosophical one -- as something that confounds reason and the senses, makes one feel one's own mortality as if standing in front of the infinite power of, say, an overwhelming nature, what Edmund Burke calls "privation," the sense that one might be annihilated at any moment.  Writes musicologist Mark Evan Bond: “Symphonies, until only recently consigned to the same category of the “agreeable” arts as wallpaper, were now [in the beginning of the 19th century] beginning to be perceived as manifestations of the infinite and, as such, as vehicles of truth.”  

This is a piece that makes outsized claims for what music is and can do.  Far from the comfortable half-hour that is a “staple of concert life,” that we own many favorite recordings of, that can be heard season after season in reasonably good performances on the programs of your local symphony orchestra, this work was understood in its initial milieu as being forceful and powerful in a way that accorded with a revolutionary shift in how people understood themselves.  The tension between these two points of view -- this work as something ungraspably new and as the very instantiation of the tradition of bourgeois culture -- is a tension that instrumentalists and conductors of today must (in multiple senses) play out every time they get on a stage to present it to an audience.

The work itself: it must have struck the audience as so very strange, and precisely because they understood the language it spoke.  Its features are exaggerated and sometimes grotesque, its logic severe and uncompromising.  While a composer using certain small, simple motifs as the basis for a composition is certainly not unusual (for Beethoven's teacher, Joseph Haydn, this was a common practice, especially in his later works that Beethoven undoubtedly knew), the ever-presence its inescapably insistent motif, as well as its simplicity, are heretofore unheard of.

Some discussion of the motif is in order: while it is familiar to us today as three 8th notes and half note with a fermata, without the benefit of context, these aspects are completely unclear.   The rhythmic status of the three 8th notes is not obvious -- do they happen on beat 1?  beat 2?  between beats? are they a triplet?  The interval -- a major third (G to E-flat) -- is no less clear; in fact it is much more likely to be heard as scale degrees 3 and 1 in E-flat major, rather than 5 and 3 in C minor.  The motif, which has implications throughout the symphony, is literally nothing more than three short sounds and a long one situated around one of the most common intervals in music.  In terms of traditional practices, one would be hard pressed to come up with less interesting raw material.

What is remarkable is that it is present in nearly every bar of the first movement.  There is no "first theme" as such in this sonata form -- merely an obsessive repetition of the motif at different pitch levels, combined with interruptive stops that fight its restless momentum.  While the second theme is an actual melody, the motif remains, grumbling around the bass instruments.  The closing section simply brings the motif back in the major key.  The development section sees the motif subjected to various changes of pitch, key, registral areas, stripped of its first note, eventually even all three, becoming nothing but a series of repeated chords (eventually losing their context, a series of long tones as if part of a slow movement).  The recapitulation is alternately more forceful (the entire orchestra hammers out the motif now, not just the strings and clarinets) and more subdued -- everyone waits while a perplexed, pensive, self-indulgently inward looking oboe solo meanders around a C minor scale.  The second and closing themes, now in C major rather than E-flat, promise a triumphal ending, but are immediately denied by a return of the minor mode.  The fully unleashed coda is vicious, propelling the music relentlessly until a final, climactic return of the motif, thundered out.  Even the final cadential gestures -- harmonically so conventional -- are rife with the motif’s unrelenting rhythm.

The motif is curious absent from the double variations slow movement in A-flat major.  It begins with a beautiful, singing, nonchalant, what-me-worry? cello theme that is elaborated upon by the woodwinds as a step-wise ascending tune.  The brass interrupt majestically, hurling the key to C major (the tonality of the Finale, though we don't know it yet), turning the woodwind theme in a military march.  It dissipates quickly, though, and the cellos begin anew.  The variations on this process comprise most of the movement, deviating only momentarily for a slightly faster section toward the end.

The sinister, insidious, snakey cello and bass theme that opens the third movement (the Scherzo) brings back the character of the first, if not its material.  It is not until the imperious entrance of the horns, blaring a melody transparently derived from the first movement's motif, that connection is clear.  The Trio section, while in C major, retains a threatening persona, with the cellos and basses bulldozing their way through a series of 8th notes (grouped, uncoincidentally, in three’s).  Upon repetition, it becomes increasingly tame, leading to return of the opening theme, now completely emasculated.  Limited to pizzicato strings and a few lonely woodwind solos, the movement dissolves.  So decayed does it become that it is unable to complete its final cadence in C minor, instead becoming suspended on an A-flat major chord for what seems like a symphonic eternity  As the violins courageously ascend, other instruments creep in.  

Without pause -- as if rending apart formal conventions by force, ironically in the guise of a forced unity -- the last movement bursts into the work in a conflagration of C major.  Trombones, piccolos, and and contrabassoon have suddenly appeared.   The orchestra has expanded three dimensionally -- it has gotten higher, lower, and louder.  All introduce the theme that is meant to resolve the symphony's tensions: an ascending C major triad that descends forthwith step-wise (and earlier, minor-key version of which appeared the C minor piano concerto’s opening theme).  The first movement's scale degree five and three have now added the stability of a root and merged with the second movement's brass fanfare to create a new theme.  It emphatically, triumphantly, heroically, definitively affirms an intense C major.  Words like “bright” and “blazing” are frequently invoked in relation to this moment, but it seems to me that they don’t quite capture it.  It is “bright” in the same sense that staring at the sun for too long is -- its power feels almost too much for your humanity, and there is some ironic sense in which its intensity threatens your subjectivity.  It is, in a word, sublime.  E. T. A. Hoffmann:

Beethoven's music, on the other hand, discloses to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable.  Beams of incandescent light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become conscious of enormous shadows; shadows that, in the ponderous weight of their alternating ebb and flow, ever-more-narrowly constrain, and, ultimately, annihilate us--without, however, annihilating that pain of infinite yearning upon which each and every pleasure that has fleetingly come into its own in the exultation of melody founders and then perishes, and it is only in virtue of this pain—this pain of mingled love, hope, and joy that is intrinsically consumptive but not destructive, this pain that strives to tear our breast asunder in a full-voiced concord of all the passions—that we survive the ordeal as enraptured communicants with the great beyond!

A second theme, featuring ascending triplets (related at least rhythmically to the motif), celebrates the collapse of the minor mode.  The development section features reminders of tonal strife, though, as the orchestra battles its way through a series of diminished chord and a threatened transformation of the Finale's second theme into the first movement's motif.  The progress halts on a G major chord.

In an astonishing moment, the still-afraid, meek third movement material returns momentarily, though it is quickly overwhelmed by a recapitulation of equal weight to the exposition, as if suddenly awaking from a dream.  Let us pause, though, to consider this remarkable compositional moment; we are made remember and re-live, after having done it once, our experience of overcoming the adversity of the work’s first three quarters.  It seems to me straightforwardly mimetic of human psychology in a way that music is rarely able to accomplish.  

After a repeat of the second theme in C major, an extended coda eventually accelerates to dangerous speeds (the first movement motif affirming the key in the bass line).  As the symphony careens towards a conclusion, superfluous notes and chords gradually fall away, leaving nothing but an uncontested C major, then simply a C itself, elementally, to end the work.

The more normative model of the Viennese classical, late-Enlightenment symphony involves finales that are light-hearted affairs -- perhaps a rondo, or a not-too-taxing sonata form with happy themes, the compositional weight having come in the first two movements.  For Beethoven, the last movement -- perhaps the philosophical and social ideas in the atmosphere during his day -- had become a hard-fought, not easily achieved tonal, compositional, and (undoubtedly) personal goal; a large-scale compositional form now heard as a teleology.  It would be hard to underestimate the influence of this compositional attitude in the nineteenth century and beyond.