I. Allegro’con brio
II. Andante con moto
It was Robert Schumann who said that revolution might be confined within the four walls of a symphony and the police be none the wiser. Beethoven’s revolution is inaugurated with the famous motive of four notes (1) , of which he is supposed to have said “Thus fate knocks at the door.” It has never been proved that Beethoven originated this phrase, but it ex-presses the music. Those four notes, those imperious knocks of destiny on the door, proclaim a new spirit and a new day. Nothing could be simpler, and more blunt, imperious, unsafe for the established order. With that roar of rage Beethoven strides upon the scene, and his mien is terrible. I think of a poem, in which the aristocrats of Louis’s court are at pretty play, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, behind high stone walls. Suddenly a head, dishevelled, hideous, leers over the wall. There is a pause of consternation, till the head, with a horrible laugh, disappears, herald of violence and destruction for those who thought themselves safe forever behind their walls. Beethoven’s four-note motive, which must have sounded appallingly in select symphonic circles of Europe, is like that headprophet of was!
Observe what happens after those four notes, loaded with dynamite, have been twice sounded. How these same notes, with their savage and implacable force, invest the orchestra! Observe this too: Beethoven’s practical abnegation of melodic forms, phrases, or periods, in favor of rhythm. Here is almost nothing but the onslaught of rhythm which sweeps every-thing before it (2) . There is a moment of brief melody the second theme (3) , introduced by a powerful variant of the firstmelody which hangs like a flower over the abyss, while the obstinate rhythm threatens underneathmelody which is swept away like every-thing else so unfortunate as to be in the path of this Vesuvian eruption! All is shattered, reassembled, and shattered again by the driving power of the rhythm. Perhaps you will notice a place about two-thirds through the first movement, when chords are ex-changed softly by different instruments–strings and woodwindlike the sighs of one utterly spent by the conflict, only to be answered with redoubled fury by the whole orchestra. Thus the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, one of the shortest and the most dramatic he ever composed, is made from the four notes which, if you heard-them apart from their con-text, you would imagine could be invented by any child with one finger on the piano. The structure reared on those four basic tones is one of the proudest that Beethoven achieved.
The second movement of the symphony is in the form of a noble theme, with simple but most eloquent variations. The next two movements are joined, and their dramatic significance is plain from the re-entrance, in varied form, of the Fate theme. Nothing that Beethoven did is more indicative of his manner of turning a classic form to individual purpose than his procedure in the third movement of the Fifth symphony. It is much less a dance than it is a mysterious and catastrophic preparation for the finale, and this preparation hinges on the Fate theme. The opening measures are charged with suspense (4) . Basses and ‘celli grope about, as if in a troubled dream. When will the sleeper awake? Suddenly a horn raps out the Fate motive in an altered guise (S) , but unmistakable in its derivation from the four-note motive of the first movement. Replying- to the horn, other instruments take up the theme, chanting it in different choirs. The double-basses, with a rough and energetic motive, gambol clumsily about like the rumblings of an earthquake in the orchestra (6) . Signs and portents ac-cumulate. The first part of the scherzo returns-in a way which enhances the mysteryalmost inaudible pluckings of the strings, whispers of the Fate theme (7) , as of something impending, something immense and awful gestating. The orchestra becomes more vague and uncertainthis orchestra of Beethoven’s, which has been dealing’ its sledge-hammer blows at fate. At last it lies supine, like a monster asleep. A single opaque chord is suspended in the atmosphere. Everything is in a mist. Then the drum begins to be-dc (8), at first very softly, then with an immense crescendo (9) which launches into the triumphant finale.