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  • These eight ferocious notes open one of the most explosive pieces of music ever composed.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" premiered in 1808 on a blisteringly cold Vienna night.

  • The piece was just one small part of a lengthy program, and the orchestra had been hastily assembled and under-rehearsed.

  • But despite this inauspicious premiere, the symphony quickly won acclaim.

  • One critic likened the piece to "glowing beams of light piercing through the darkness".

  • This intensity persists throughout the composition, and its dramatic musicality continues to move listeners today.

  • So what exactly makes Beethoven's "Fifth" so captivating?

  • When the symphony premiered, Beethoven already had a formidable reputation.

  • While his peers produced music exclusively for religious functions or private events held by their wealthy patrons, Beethoven was one of the first freelance composers.

  • He made his living composing and selling his music to publishers in multiple countries and showcasing his compositions to an adoring public.

  • This career choice gave him the flexibility to compose for self-expression, and Beethoven was always pursuing new ways to translate his powerful emotions into music.

  • At the time, most composers worked within the Classical style, which offered limited options for a piece's overarching structure and instrumentation.

  • Beethoven composed most of his earlier pieces in this tradition, following in the footsteps of role models like Mozart and Haydn.

  • But with his "Fifth Symphony", he experimented with elements of Romanticism.

  • This blossoming mode of composition was known for its expressive melodies, extended forms, and surprising instrumentations.

  • The first movement of Beethoven's "Fifth" uses a Classical sonata form, in which a central musical idea is explored, developed, and repeated in an altered manner.

  • Within these parameters, he explores a simple idea with incredible depth.

  • A single rhythmic motif serves as the building block for most of the movement: three short notes followed by a lingering fourth.

  • One of Beethoven's biographers would later call this pattern the "fate motif", because it suggests the figure of fate knocking at the door.

  • While it's not clear if Beethoven composed the motif with fate in mind, these notes certainly create a gripping hook.

  • The rhythmic pattern creates forward movement, while the prolonged fourth note signals doom.

  • This motif haunts the symphony, including its accompanying parts and rhythmic flourishes.

  • Beethoven experiments with dozens of variations, playing out across different instruments and pitches.

  • Throughout the piece, this motif is passed around the orchestra like a whisper, gradually reaching more and more instruments until it becomes a roar.

  • The motif's inventive repetition is a large part of what makes this piece so memorable, but it's not the only innovation on display.

  • This was the first major orchestral composition to use trombones, and Beethoven also employs a high-pitched piccolo and a low-pitched contrabassoon to give the orchestra a wider range than most Classical compositions.

  • Exaggerated musical dynamics further heighten the drama.

  • And harmonically, the piece has a clear emotional arcbeginning in a somber C minor and ending in a triumphant C major.

  • This progression, from ominous unease to majestic resolution, is a testament to Beethoven's ability to inject raw emotionality into his music.

  • He wrote this symphony while battling with hearing loss, and his anguish can be heard in the composition's thunderous and repeating musical phrases.

  • Beethoven continued to compose even after he became completely deaf, producing innovative music until his death in 1827.

  • And the "Fifth Symphony's" central motif has continued to resound through the ages.

  • Outside of concert halls, the piece has become a symbol for suspense, revelation, and triumph.

  • The fate motif sounds out the letter V in Morse code, and during World War II, the "Fifth Symphony" became a code for victory amongst the Allies.

  • The iconic composition can be found in film scores, and it's even been explored through musical reinterpretations and visual art.

  • But, whatever the context, Beethoven's "Fifth" takes its listeners through a dark world, then guides them into the light.

These eight ferocious notes open one of the most explosive pieces of music ever composed.

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    Julianne Sung posted on 2021/12/14
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