The C minor Symphony is not only the best known, and therefore the most generally enjoyed, of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies, but it is a more universal favourite than any other work of the same class. It is the only one of the nine which is sufficiently well known to have broken the barriers of a repulsive nomenclature, and to have become familiar, outside a certain more or less initiated circle, by its technical name.
The C minor Symphony is often spoken of as if it were a miracle of irregularity, and almost as if in composing it Beethoven had abandoned the ordinary rules which regulate the construction of a piece of music, put down whatever came uppermost in his mind, and by the innate force of genius produced a masterpiece which seized the world with admiration, and has kept it in astonishment ever since. The C minor Symphony is the fifth of the series.
It was intended to follow the Eroica, and was begun in the year 1805. The first performance took place at Vienna, December 22, 1808; the first performance in England was by the Philharmonic Society, April 15, 1816.
The modern Romantic movement, whether called so or not, seems to have taken place earlier in music than it did in literature; and, whoever else may aspire to the honour of leading it, Beethoven was really its prophet, and the C minor Symphony its first great and assured triumph.
The end of the Symphony in D, the Eroica, the Overture to ‘Leonora’ are all essays in the Romantic direction, animated by the new fire; but the C minor is the first unmistakable appearance of the goddess herself in her shining, heavenly panoply (Hoffmann 1971).
The C minor Symphony at once set the example, and made possible the existence of the most picturesque and poetical music of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Tschaikoffsky. The first movement of Beethoven’s C minor Symphony is framed as exactly as is the first movement of his C major Symphony – as the Trios and Sonatas with which he started on his career before the public.
To give an outline of the construction of the Symphony. Its structure – in musical language, its ‘form’ – is as follows. The opening subject is in the key of C minor, and is quickly answered by a second, in the key of E flat, the ‘relative major,’ in which key the first section of the movement ends.
That section having been repeated, we go on to the workingout, by no means long, and confined for its construction almost entirely to materials already furnished. Then comes the reprise of the opening, with the usual changes of key, a short Coda, and the movement is at an end!
These sections are all, with a rare uniformity, almost exactly of the same length: to the double bar, 124 bars; the working-out, 123; the reprise, 126; and the Coda, 129. In fact, the movement is much stricter in its form than that of the Eroica, which has two important episodes, entirely extraneous, in the working-out, while its reprise is by no means an exact repetition of what has gone before. If all art is a representation – and surely it must be a representation of the idea in the mind of the artist – here we have the most concise representation that has ever been accomplished in music (Hoffmann 1971).
No, it is no disobedience to laws that makes the C minor Symphony so great and unusual – no irregularity or improvisation; it is obedience to law, it is the striking and original nature of the thoughts, the direct manner in which they are expressed, and the extraordinary energy with which they are enforced and reinforced, and driven into the hearer, hot from the mind of the author, with an incandescence which is still as bright and as scorching as the day they were forged on his anvil – it is these things that make the C minor Symphony what it is and always will be.
It is impossible to believe that it will ever grow old.
Hoffmann E. T. A. Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, New York, 1971.