Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

“So often heard,” Robert Schumann wrote of the Fifth Symphony, “it still exercises its power over all ages, just as those great phenomena of nature that, no matter how often they recur, fill us with awe and wonder. This Symphony will go on centuries hence, as long as the world and world’s music endure.”

According to Beethoven’s biographer, Alexander Thayer, “this wondrous work was no sudden inspiration. Themes for (three of the movements) are found in sketchbooks belonging, at the very latest, to the years 1800 and 1801.” After interrupting himself to write the Fourth Symphony, Beethoven finished the Fifth in the spring of 1808.

Beethoven conducted the first performance at a typically massive all-Beethoven concert in Vienna on December 22, 1808. Besides the Fifth, the program included the Sixth Symphony, the concert aria Ah, Perfido, two movements from the Mass in C major, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. One listener complained: “There we continued, in the bitterest cold, too, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing–and still more of a loud…. Many a failure in the performance vexed our patience in the highest degree.”

“In spite of several faults which I could not prevent,” said Beethoven, “the public received everything most enthusiastically.” Critic Amadeus Wendt wrote: “Beethoven’s music inspires in its listeners awe, fear, horror, pain, and that exquisite nostalgia that is the soul of romanticism.” E.T.A. Hoffmann called the Fifth “one of the most important works of the master whose position in the first rank of composers of instrumental music can now be denied by no one…. It is a concept of genius, executed with profound deliberation, which in a very high degree brings the romantic content of the music to expression.”

In 1830, Mendelssohn played the first movement on the piano for Goethe, who said: “It is tremendous–quite crazy–one is almost afraid the house will collapse; and imagine how it must sound in the orchestra!” Of the celebrated four notes that begin the movement, Beethoven is supposed to have said: “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” Much has been made of this remark, most of it nonsense. Pointing to the same four notes in the Fourth Piano Concerto, theorist Heinrich Schenker wondered, “Was this another door on which Fate knocked or was someone else knocking at the same door?” By coincidence, the rhythm of the four notes corresponds to the Morse code for the letter “V.” That, coupled with Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” gesture, inspired the BBC to use the phrase as a signature during World War II.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey compared the second movement to Shakespeare’s heroines, for “the same courage, the same beauty of goodness, and the same humor.” Berlioz claimed that the third movement produces “the inexplicable emotion that one experiences under the magnetic gaze of certain individuals.” With the finale, writes George Grove, “all the noisy elements at Beethoven’s command in those simpler days (burst) like a thunderclap into the major key and into a triumphal march.”

Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony was his last. He began sketching it in April, 1971 and had written three movements when he arrived at the Composers’ Union Retreat in Repino in July. By the end of the month, the work was finished.

“I am very nervous about the premiere,” he said. “It is always hard to speak about one’s own works, but I will, of course, be pleased if the symphony goes down well with the public.” The first performance took place in Moscow on January 8, 1972. The composer’s son Maxim conducted the All-Union Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra.

The symphony was well received. Fellow composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote: “I have always been struck by Shostakovich’s talent for drama. The symphony has a remarkably logical construction. It contains a wealth of experiences and a whole gamut of feelings and philosophical meditations about life and death, treated by the composer on an elevated plane.” The chairman of the Soviet Composers’ Union, Tikhon Khrennikov, said it was “filled with optimism, affirmation of life, and trust in man’s inexhaustible strength.”

According to the composer, the work begins “in a toy shop, with a cloudless sky above.” The symphony is filled with references to other composers’ music, and his own. The opening movement, for example, contains the famous trumpet tune from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The finale contains allusions to Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde, as well as to Shostakovich’s own Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”). In the second movement, he quotes his Eleventh Symphony. Also, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Mahler’s Ninth symphonies have been detected. “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there,” said Shostakovich, “but I could not, could not, not include them.”

The composer’s son Maxim, who scoffed at the toy store notion in the first movement, said: “The Fifteenth moves through many changes of mind. Personally, I feel it reflects the great philosophical problems of man’s life cycle, from the appearance of certain childish emotions to the acquisition of energy, vitality and wisdom. In the Finale the storms subside and there emerges triumphant a sincere feeling of humanity and great philosophical peace. But as I say, this is my personal feeling.”

In their book on the Shostakovich symphonies, Roy Blokker and Robert Dearling wrote: “Shostakovich looks back, quoting his own music and that of others to build his thematic ideas, and he also remembers his playfulness and penchant for laughter…. It seems certain that Shostakovich meant his Fifteenth Symphony to taken in the same vein as the Sixth and Ninth: as pure music.”

~Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2017.