Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton

An Icon
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, also known as the “Fate Symphony,” is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of classical music in the canon. Its four-note opening motif evokes an immediate reaction from not only the most avid classical music appreciator, but also from someone who has never stepped foot into a concert hall before. It has been played by world-class orchestras in almost every city around the world, and has even been heard in McDonald’s commercials. The work was composed from 1804 to 1808 and was based off of three of Beethoven’s original sketches. The piece premiered in Vienna in 1808 at a momentous all-Beethoven program that is said to have lasted four hours, at which the composer himself conducted and performed on the piano. The work was one of several premieres on the program, including Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Symphony V for Victory
The nickname of the symphony, “Fate,” which was not given by Beethoven himself, comes from the four note opening of the piece. The most recognizable portion, “short-short-short-long,” was thought to resemble fate knocking at a subject’s door, and is used as a motif throughout each movement of the work. Because of the symphony’s popularity, the theme was commonly used during the second World War as a way to mark a victory over the radio systems. In Morse code, “short-short-short-long” spelled out the letter “V” for victory. The theme would be played whenever the Allied forces found success in their endeavors. It became a powerful symbol of hope.

A Gateway Work
Whether or not Beethoven himself thought of this opening motif as fate knocking on the door remains unclear. What does ring true is that it was fate for this piece to live on forever. I think of this work as a gateway to classical music for the average person. The opening four notes are recognized by practically everyone around the world, but it’s what follows those notes that makes the symphony magical. The opening hooks the audience, but the rest of the piece keeps listeners planted in their seats, amazed at what contemporary and rich stories classical music can paint. The “Fate Symphony” has held the fate of classical music in its hands for centuries, and I believe the piece will continue to be a riveting gateway work for many more centuries to come.