Why Is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 Astronomically Popular?

Mar 12, 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered in 1808 and was praised as "one of the most important works of the time" by critic E.T.A. Hoffman. WRTI’s Susan Lewis explores why, in the more than 200 years since, the work retains its extraordinary appeal.

It has no predecessor, no successor in composition.

You've heard those first four notes—quoted in classical and popular compositions, referenced in films and television. That same rhythmic motif (which in Morse Code, spells V for Victory) opened the BBC radio broadcasts during World War II. 

And the symphony itself?  It's one of the most recognized in music history. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach calls it "phenomenal."

Listen to WRTI 90.1 on Sunday, March 18th to hear Christoph Eschenbach conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, along with music by Weber and Schumann. 

It has no predecessor. No successor in competition. The first movement is one of the most modern ideas to have a motto like, 'Ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum.' And to build out of this little piece a whole movement is phenomenal. Actually it’s through the whole symphony. It comes again and again and again this motif."

Beethoven started his Fifth Symphony in 1804, and he knew he was going deaf. He wrote it over nearly four years, when he also was busy on other compositions, including string quartets, concertos, and two other symphonies. Grappling with fate, he summoned defiance and triumph, with transcendent innovation. 

"The other thing which is very very amazing and it was never written before," says Eschenbach,"[is] the transition from the third movement to the last movement.  This misterioso with timpani,  as soft as possible....  It's mystery, and then it breaks into C Major!"  

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony premiered in a concert in 1808. Over the next century and beyond, several new American orchestras chose it for their inaugural concerts, including The New York Philharmonic in 1842, and in 1900, The Philadelphia Orchestra.