Musicologists and historians call the central period of Ludwig Van Beethoven's (1770-1827) compositional life his 'heroic period' (1802-1812)1. He composed a large number of works, most of which contained some sort of triumphant or "strong" musical theme2. His fifth symphony was composed between 1807 and 1808, in the middle of this phase. The theme of triumph is echoed throughout the symphony, making it perhaps the most characteristic of Beethoven's heroic period.


Beethoven lived and composed during a time of transition between the Classical and Romantic eras3. Many of his pieces combined elements of the two, and Symphony No. 5 in C minor is no exception. As the Romantic movement developed, composers began to use larger orchestras that enabled them to go beyond their previous limits. This symphony calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings.

The structure of the symphony itself relies heavily on classical forms and outlines. It, like many pieces from the Classical and Baroque eras, is comprised of four movements. Form, time signature, key and tempo vary between the four movements.

First Movement
The first movement is in sonata form, and contains the Classical sonata form elements: exposition, development, recapitulation and coda.4 It is played allegro con brio, or "fast and vigorous."5

The movement's beginning is perhaps the most famous in music history. Beethoven opened this symphony with a four-note motif which he likened to "fate knocking on the door."6 The theme returns, in some form or another, in "almost every measure of the movement."7 The movement's second theme, which is similar to the first, is played by the horns and followed with a building phrase by the strings and woodwinds.

The movement is marked with contrast. The dynamics change suddenly and without warning. The majority of the movement is played either forte or fortissimo, with several piano and pianissimo phrases providing contrast. The movement's 'development' and 'recapitulation' phases change the original key several times; it moves from C minor to F minor to C Major and finally returns to C minor for its conclusion.

Overall, the movement fits the "fast and serious"8 description given to sonata form.

Second Movement
The second movement of this symphony is little like the first. Whereas the first movement began with a loud, forceful motif, the second movement begins with a flowing, lyrical melody played by the violas and cellos.

This movement, unlike the first, is also in triple meter time and in A Flat Major. Its tempo is described as andante con moto (or "fairly slow but with movement"9).

Traditionally, most second movements were in aria form10 (which introduced a main theme, a second theme, and then returned to the main theme11. Beethoven opted instead for a theme and variations form, presenting a main theme and presenting different arrangements of it.

There is also a great deal of contrast within this movement, as the second main theme is alternately a soft, gentle motif played by the clarinets and a triumphant fanfare played by the horns and strings. As with the first movement, the dynamics are varied and range from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Third Movement
A work's third movement was traditionally in Minuet and Trio form12 but Beethoven considered the minuet inappropriate for his particular period in history13 and opted instead to use Scherzo and Trio form in many of his third movements.

This movement returns to the symphony's tonic key of C minor. It is played allegro or "fast" in 3/4 time. It begins with the cellos and basses, which quietly play a short phrase and are echoed by the woodwinds. It then moves to a theme similar to the main theme of the first movement. This theme, however, does not descend a minor third on its fourth note. Instead, it remains on the first note, which is the dominant of the key14. Much of the scherzo is similar to a 'dialogue' between the strings and the horns; it makes frequent use of the four-note motif and ends very quietly.

The 'trio' section of the movement begins with a "fuguelike" melody played by the cellos and basses in C Major. It is then repeated and accented by the woodwinds. The original fuguelike section is also repeated by the entire orchestra before returning to a low string melody.

At this point there is a reprisal of the scherzo in C minor. The four note motif is repeated with woodwinds and strings. This leads into the transition to the fourth movement, which consists of one quiet note by the strings, low playing by the timpani and a quiet violin melody (which repeats some of the themes from the scherzo). The key changes from minor to major as the melody increases in volume. The fourth movement begins.

Fourth Movement
This movement is mostly played by the entire orchestra (which now includes trombones, a piccolo and a contrabassoon15. It returns to sonata form and is in common time. Like the third movement, it is played allegro.

The movement contains several distinct themes, all of which have an air of triumph. Beethoven uses a wide range of keys during the development; all but a few are major. Some of the themes (including the variation on the original four-note motif from the scherzo) are used and repeated during this movement. After the movement's themes are replayed with subtle changes16, the tempo quickens and the symphony is brought to a climactic close as every instrument plays 'C' loudly17.

Public Reaction

The first performance of the symphony was met with ambivalence18. People began to take notice after it was performed again nearly two years later19. Many of the period's music critics are believed to have been unimpressed by Beethoven's "crude, wild and extraneous harmonies20."

Today is it considered a masterpiece by countless people.


The fifth symphony is probably the best representation of Beethoven's heroic phase because of the transformation it goes through. Its beginning seems morbid and pessimistic but over the course of three movements it seems to triumph over darkness and adversity. The symphony could itself be a metaphor for any kind of journey in which a protagonist must overcome hardships and eventually conquers his or her demons triumphantly.

The symphony has achieved the status of legend in the nearly two hundred years since its completion. Still, however, many people are only familiar with the first (and some with the fourth) movement due to its wide use in cinema and other art projects. Naturally, one would have to experience the entire symphony in order to understand why it is so often associated with triumph.

Symphony No. 5, though one of Beethoven's most well known works, is overshadowed (to a certain extent) by his ninth symphony, when really, it's actually just as much of a triumph and contains just as poignant a message of hope.

Works Cited:
1Yudkin, Jeremy. Understanding Classical Music: Third Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River. 2002. p. 197.
3Ibid, p. 195.
4Ibid, p. 170.
5Ibid, p. 203.
6Ibid, p. 204.
8Ibid, p. 170.
9Ibid, p. 207.
10Ibid, p. 169.
13Ibid, p. 210.
15Ibid, p. 212.
16Ibid, p. 216.
18Symphony No. 5 (Beethoven) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._5_%28Beethoven%29. 10 June 2004.
20Yudkin, Understanding Classical Music: Third Edition. p. 200.