top of page

Thus Fate Knocks At The Door

The MHS Review 381 Vol. 11, NO. 3 • 1987

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

Elizabeth Meehan


not yet released.png

Ludwig van Beethoven's greatness as a symphonic composer is undisputed, but listeners have not esteemed all nine symphonies equally. This issue's featured selection (see page 1) spans the spectrum of popularity: Symphonies nos. 2, 5 and 6. Music writer George R. Marek has ranked the popularity of Beethoven's symphonies, from least to most popular, in this order: 2, 4, 1, 8, 7, 6, 9, 3, 5.

Although from Marek's viewpoint the Second Symphony is not an audience favorite, it is the most important work of Beethoven's "apprenticeship" period (ending in 1803), during which he learn­ed, and refined, sonata form. The Se­cond Symphony, though immature, shows how Beethoven's mastery was evolving. What separates this work from symphonies by Haydn and Mozart is, ac­cording to Daniel Gregory in Beethoven and his Forerunners, " ... the immensely increased closeness of texture, inten­sity of meaning, logic, vigor, poignan­cy. All the strings are tightened, and flab­biness, diffuseness, meaningless or­namentation, and filling are swept away."

In addition, Beethoven enhanced the sonata form by substituting a scherzo (meaning "musical joke") for the usual minuet of the third movement. The energetic scherzo provides a contrast with the lyric larghetto second move­ment. Basil Lam, in his liner notes to the original recording, writes that Sym­phony no. 2 (completed November 1802) is a "world of unaggressive power, humor, and relaxed happiness."

Humor and happiness are nowhere to be found in a letter Beethoven wrote dated October 6, 1802, with an October 10 postscript. Known as the Heiligenstadt Testament (after the suburb of Vienna in which he was liv­ing), this document is a kind of will ad­dressed to his brothers Carl and Johann, although, oddly, Ludwig never wrote out Johann's name in the letter. The let­ter was not sent; it was discovered among Beethoven's belongings after his death.

It begins: "Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you." The "secret cause" is his deafness, which had impelled him, on the recommendation of his doctor, to retreat alone to the outskirts of Vienna. No longer able to mix in society, he wrote later in the letter that he con­sidered suicide, but "it was only my art that held me back." The document divides Beethoven's fortune between Carl and Johann, and the main body of the letter ends with this plaintive state­ment: "Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy--please be so."

The happy quality of the Second Sym­phony could indicate that Beethoven emerged from his despair, or it could also simply show that he was capable of separating his work from his unhappy personal life. In any case, Beethoven did come to terms with his deafness eventually.

The countryside around Heiligenstadt provided the inspiration for a later sym­phony: No. 6 in F major, also known as the "Pastoral." The Sixth Symphony is distinctive for several reasons, the first of which is that it is the only program­matic symphony that Beethoven ever wrote. He generally avoided writing program music. Beethoven biographer Thayer wrote: "The difference between him and others in this regard is this: they undertook to give musical imitations of things essentially unmusical-he never."

The things essentially musical that one can hear in the "Pastoral" include the rippling of a brook (strings), thunder (double basses), and the songs of a nightingale, quail, and cuckoo (flute, oboe, and clarinet, respectively) With these elements. Beethoven aspired to touch the listeners emotions. , A note he made in the sketchbook for this work says, "Pastoral Symphony: no picture, but something in which the emotions are expressed which in men by the pleasure of the country. Another distinctive aspect of this symphony is its construction in five movements instead of the customary four, and the absence of a break between the third and fourth movements. Each movement has a descriptive title, but again, as another note reveals, Beethoven's goal was to elicit emotions: "Without titles the whole will be recognized as a matter of feeling of painting in sounds."

The "Pastoral" experience begins with "awakening of cheerful feeling on arriving in the country," followed by the "scene by the brook", (A bust of Beethoven has been placed at the actual site in the valley between  

Heiligenstadt  and Nussdorf, where he composed this movement. )  Next is a "festive assembly of the country people" which is disrupted by the “storm" of the fourth movement, a “Shepherd's Song”. Joyful and grateful feelings after the “storm” cap the symphony.

The “Pastoral” Symphony is well loved, but the Fifth Symphony is in a class by itself.  The most famous four notes in music open the symphony. "Fate knocks at the door," explained Beethovcn to his friend and personal secretary, Anton Schindler. Years later during World War II, the Fifth Symphony became known as the "Victory” Symphony because of those four notes.   The letter V in Morse code is three dots one dash, so the Allies adopted the opening motive of the Fifth as a symbol of their efforts toward victory. Interestingly this mighty motive was inspired by a bird song.  According to a story Beethoven told his friend Carl Czerny,  the composer was walking through the woods and was, struck by the song of a yellowhammer. Sir George Grove reports in Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies that in England and in Austria, the yellowhammer sings "a quick succession of the same note, en­ding with a longer one, sometimes ris­ing above the preceding note, but more frequently falling."

Beethoven always carried music writing paper with him so that he could write down musical ideas as they came to him, so he jotted down the bird's song. The musical idea borrowed from the yellowhammer grew into the C minor Symphony as Beethoven worked on it between 1805 and 1807, and com­pleted it in 1808. Although it had been commissioned by Count Franz von Op­persdorff (who also commissioned the Fourth Symphony), the composer sold it instead to publishers Breitkopf and Hartel in September 1808.

The Fifth Symphony debuted at a marathon, four-hour concert at the Theater an der Wien on December 22 that same year. The concert was impor­tant for two reasons. First, it introduc­ed all-new Beethoven works to the public, including the Fifth and "Pastoral" Symphonies, a piano fantasia, the Choral Fantasia, op. 80, the Fourth Piano Concerto, op, 58, and movements from the Mass in C, op. 86. Second, and equally significant, Beethoven's perfor­mance of the solo in the piano concer­to and the fantasia mark his last major solo performance in public.

Elizabeth Meehan is an alumna of Georgian Court College, Lakewood, NJ. She holds a B.A. in English and French, and enjoys singing and playing the piano, as well as writing about music.

Review of The Nine Symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven

bottom of page