In the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven set up a battle between hope and despair. The dark side of that spectrum is represented by the symphony’s anguished opening notes: dun dun dun DUNNNN. Over the course of the next three movements, Beethoven tries to overcome a dark real-world fate with bright, major-key melodies — and keeps getting defeated.
With each high and low, the arc of the symphony becomes clear: This battle isn’t just about major and minor harmonies, it’s about the will to live in the face of adversity.
In the second episode of our four-part podcast series The 5th, a collaboration between Vox’s Switched on Pop and the New York Philharmonic, we break down exactly how Beethoven keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear whether the symphony will end in darkness or light.
After the stormy first movement, the second movement introduces a hopeful C major passage played by the Philharmonic’s French horn player, Leelanee Sterrett. Sterrett says every time she performs that melody, it feels like she’s “crashing the party,” bringing some joy and life to the somber proceedings. But as quickly as her part appears, it “sort of dies away.”
In the third movement, the same thing happens: A bright major melody gets silenced by dark minor chords. By the time we get to the final movement, the suspense is palpable. How will this story end? Can hopeful major chords win out?
Spoiler alert: The answer is a resounding “ja!” The Philharmonic’s concertmaster and first violinist Frank Huang describes the symphony’s final movement as “euphoric”: “The horns have this beautiful, heroic melody, and then the orchestra has these big chords and it just feels like you’ve conquered something that’s been bothering you your whole life … like when you finally reach the destination you’ve been working for for years.”
That feeling of relief, for both the orchestra and the audience, is palpable. “Every time I get there, I look around and see everybody kind of enjoying themselves,” Frank says. “You look out at the audience, and people are just mesmerized.”
For Beethoven, the symphony’s ending wasn’t just about delivering a bright, major-key melody. It was about persevering in the face of hardship, with contrasting harmonies and melodies acting as metaphors for life and death.
Right before Beethoven composed the Fifth Symphony, he wrote to his brothers that his oncoming deafness had “brought me to the verge of despair.” He questioned whether he could go on: “but little more and I would have put an end to my life.” What saved him? “Only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured.”
Listen how Beethoven overcomes his musical and personal perils in Movement II of The 5th, available now.