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Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: How Well Do You Really Know It?

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Oil painting of Beethoven, aged 50, by Joseph Karl Stieler in 1820.

Oil painting of Beethoven, aged 50, by Joseph Karl Stieler in 1820.

Beethoven's Fifth: The First Five Bars

If you’ve never heard the opening bars of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 you’ve most likely lived on another planet, or certainly in a part of the world which has little or no access to, or perhaps interest in, western classical music. It’s so famous it’s known simply as Beethoven’s Fifth. The symphony appendage, the type of work it is, is invariably left off.

From the teenager plugged into his headphones listening to rap to the Booker-prize winning author, most individuals will certainly prick up their ears in recognition. They may randomly sing it, usually as a fitting musical description to some situation they’re in. They may do some actions, I’ve seen people pretending, as I'm sure you have, to play the piano, hands up and down to the rhythm, though it wasn’t written for any type of keyboard and needs the weight of a full orchestra for maximum impact.

Beethoven composing at the piano in his study, from a painting by Carl Schloesser

Beethoven composing at the piano in his study, from a painting by Carl Schloesser

The Opening of Beethoven's Fifth

For such a ground-breaking work, it amuses me that the part most people are familiar with is only a tiny fragment. Then I wondered about some more questions regarding Beethoven's Fifth:

  • What are the opening five bars?
  • How many people know the opening five bars?
  • Who gets it right?
  • What is the length of the symphony?
  • How many people know how much more to the symphony there is?

I've probably already got your attention. What do you mean, how many get it right? How can they not? It's one of the famous pieces in the world!

Let’s look at that opening fragment. It’s five bars long, just four notes, repeated but dropped down a tone so it sounds like a question. Four notes! But do you really know how they're supposed to sound? And do you know the answer to that question?

Portrait of Beethoven, 1824

Portrait of Beethoven, 1824

Beethoven's Deafness Was Gradual

Beethoven did not start going deaf until he was in his twenties, and was not completely deaf until about 1818, in his late forties. Naturally, it caused him great despair as it would anyone losing their hearing and kept his deteriorating condition as much as he could to himself. In 1801 he wrote to a friend 'I beg of you to keep the matter of my deafness a profound secret, to be confided to no-one...'

When he could no longer conceal his disability, Beethoven used notebooks to communicate. These are a great insight into how Beethoven thought about all matters from music to domestic situations.

His public days as a virtuoso pianist were curtailed after a disastrous concert in 1811 when he performed his own 'Emporer' Piano Concerto, but unable to hear the orchestra he could not synchronise his playing with them. He never composed another piano concerto.

Do You Really Know the Opening of Beethoven's Fifth?

If you sing the opening of Beethoven's fifth, do you think it's: ‘DA da da DAAAH. DA da da DAAAH?’ In other words, with a stress on the first of the Dahs and on the long Daaaaaah? This may come as a surprise, but I have to tell you, all those years you've been doing it you have been wrong!

You are singing it as if it is ‘one two three one (held on), one two three one (held on)’. As if there are three beats to a bar. It isn’t. What you should be singing, in terms of rhythm at least is this:

Breath two three four one (held), breath two three four one (held), except you hold on the last note for longer. Also, the breath you take is the same length as each of the short dahs.

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Excuse me, I hear you say? Surely not? But yes, this is actually correct, and it wasn't until I had the opportunity to play it and saw the way it was written that I got a complete shock myself. I, too, had fallen into the trap. And you can be completely forgiven for being duped.

You do not stress the first note. The stress is only on the last of the ‘ones’. The easiest way to get a handle on it is to sniff on the first beat, then sing the rest:

Sniff da da da DAAAAH, sniff da da da DAAAAAAAAH. The second DAAAAH is twice as long as the first as it spills over into a second bar.

Try it. Feels quite different, doesn't it?

I reckon somewhere in the region of 95 percent, perhaps even more, of the Western world is familiar with that introduction to the symphony. Though it's probably only five percent or less who could accurately reproduce it.

So, that fragment that everyone thinks they know: in the spirit of pantomime I will say, “Oh, no they don’t!”

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, on 16 December 1770. He died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna where he had lived since the age of 21.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, on 16 December 1770. He died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna where he had lived since the age of 21.

The Length of Beethoven's Fifth

Now to the length. I’ve heard—and played—beyond those five bars many, many times, and know the answer to that question.

As a rule, symphonies in Beethoven's time were split into four parts called movements. Generally, the pattern was:

  • 1st movement: moderately fast
  • 2nd movement: slow
  • 3rd movement: minuet or scherzo and trio
  • 4th movement: fast

In case you're wondering, a minuet is a rather stately dance using three beats to a bar. A scherzo, made popular by Beethoven, also whips along in three beats to a bar but is faster than the minuet. Trios carry on the style but use contrasting music, after which the music from the minuet or scherzo resumes.

The whole symphony lasts around 25 minutes of which the first movement, powered by those halting first few notes, uses up somewhere in the region of seven to eight.

What is so fantastic about the remarkable opening is the way Beethoven uses the initial five bars throughout the whole work. In fact, it could be argued that it is the initial two bars that drive it.

During the first movement, there is barely a let-up of that iconic theme relentlessly pouring out in many extended forms. Even though a second melody is introduced, more lyrical and less thunderously rhythmic in construction, it is shot through with the first four notes in the form of an accompaniment. There seems to be no escape from what Beethoven had remarked was ‘fate knocking at the door’.

But Beethoven doesn't stop there. The introductory theme pervades the whole symphony, uniting it. In other words, the first movement is the tender pulling three carriages filled with, not all the same goods, but by and large, ones which are similar, like different minerals, hard diamonds, limestone, charcoal, anthracite. The famous four notes power the third movement and even reappear as a direct quote in the fourth. Only the second slow movement is free of the repetitive theme, a mellifluous respite from the preceding unstoppable dynamo.

I've speculated a potential ninety-five percent recognise the opening of Beethoven's fifth. So, who would be able to sing the next five bars along and the five after that? Suddenly that percentage plummets. Ten percent, maybe? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were less, though in Britain the television station ITV has in the past used a relatively healthy section of the groundbreaking movement to advertise its upcoming sporting events—certainly a good deal more than the introductory five bars. Hopefully, those considerable extra measures will stay in the minds and entertain everybody long after the campaign.

And as for the other movements, who’s got any idea about those? By now that generous ten percent is dropping. Children who’ve been in the school orchestra may well have played a shortened version of the last movement. It’s a staple of the amateur repertoire which can be scraped through with gusto to the delight, or not, of listening parents at the end-of-term concert. It’s a popular choice, rumbustious and heroic. All the instruments get something interesting to play and it’s jolly. But if you heard it in isolation, could you pin a name to it?

The Beethoven Memorial in Munsterplatz in Bonn

The Beethoven Memorial in Munsterplatz in Bonn

Listen to the Whole of Beethoven's Fifth

Now you’ve been reacquainted with the opening five bars and probably righted on how it should be played. If you aren’t familiar with the rest of the symphony, seek it out. You can even download apps for it now. If you go further and seek out the CD, don’t buy one conducted by Klemperer or Toscanini. You’ll be dead by the time they get to the end they take so long over it. Go for the daddy of recordings, and order the exciting Carlos Kleiber version that gallops along like a streamlined javelin. Honestly, you won’t be disappointed.

And can I make a plea? For goodness’ sake don’t sing it like a dirge. Beethoven put a note on the score to advise what at tempo he wanted it playing at. One hell of a lick, actually, 108 beats, or 108 dahs if you like, per minute. That’s what you call moving it.

Recording of Beethoven's Fifth

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