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Beethoven's Symphony No. 5: Personal or Political?

In the first of two all-Beethoven nights with a group that's known for its vibrant, historically informed performances, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique perform two of Beethoven's best-known symphonies, the uplifting Seventh and the dramatic Fifth. Here, Jack Sullivan delves into the meaning of Symphony No. 5 which received its Carnegie Hall premiere on May 9, 1891, with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, as part of the Opening Week Music Festival.

So much has been written about Beethoven's Fifth, at once the most popular and revolutionary of symphonies, that it is safe to say the work has changed the way we think about music. No matter how much contemporary critics disparage Beethoven's alleged "Fate knocking at the door" statement as inauthentic—or belittle the popular "program" of Beethoven's defiant struggle against deafness, despair, and thoughts of suicide—thousands of people continue to hear the work this way. Whether authentic or not, the idea of Beethoven facing down Fate has proved irresistible: If Fate wasn't knocking at the door, it certainly should have been.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner believes the work has less to do with Beethoven's personal struggles than with the incendiary political ideals of the French Revolution: The fiery four-note motif jolting through the symphony is "an alarm call, an incitement, a call to arms." No composer before Beethoven, says Maestro Gardiner, would have invested a symphony with such formidable political resonance. However we regard the piece, the Fifth represents a sea of change—not only in structure, rhythm, and musical emotion, but in what we believe possible in symphonic music. To be sure, many earlier symphonies (Mozart's G-Minor, Haydn's "The Clock," Beethoven's own "Eroica") also have extra-musical associations, but no symphony before the Fifth carries so much portentous symbolic weight.

Read Jack Sullivan's complete notes on Beethoven's Fifth here.

November 16, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
November 17, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

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