For about four years LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN had been carrying his idea for his Symphony No.5 (1808). Drafts of his Fifth and Sixth Symphony were discovered among the manuscripts of his 1804 Third Symphony, Eroica, and in the meantime he wrote and performed the Fourth. It is known that Beethoven’s creative process, as opposed to that of Mozart, normally employed continuous revising in search of different variants.
In the first years of the nineteenth century, the composer had to encounter personal and creative dramas. He overcame the crisis from his progressing deafness, the period of seclusion, despair and anguish. An eloquent tes- timony of his state of mind is provided by his epistolary legacy and the Heiligenstadt Testament (1802): “…a little more […] and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.”
In an 1801 letter to his friend Wegeler Beethoven wrote: “If only half freed from my infirmity, then — as a tho- rough, ripe man — I will come to you and renew the old feelings of friendship. You should then see me as happy as I am ever destined to be here below – not unhappy. No! that I could not endure! I will seize Fate by the throat! It shall certainly never wholly overcome me! Oh! How glorious it is to live… to live a thousand lives!” (The translation of this passage represents a conflated version of the two translations made by J. S. Shedlock and Lady Wallace.)
Beethoven’s earlier years of family afflictions, his first encounter with Mozart in 1787, his training in composition un- der Haydn as of 1792, remained in the past. Until that moment he had enjoyed intense and active concert routine, acquiring fame as a piano virtuoso. It was to be trained under Haydn that he left Bonn and settled in Vienna.
But in the beginning of the century Beethoven was overcome by the revolu- tionary spirit of the times, by his fas- cination for Napoleon and the French heroic style in music, declaratively transforming the “heroic“ theme into a personal leitmotif of his own. Thus were created: Eroica, the Aurora and Apassionata piano sonatas, the Kreuzer violin sonata. After 1804, Beethoven undertook the composition of what was to remain his only opera, Fidelio. The influence which the ideas of the French Revolution and of the French “grand music style” had on Beethoven was to continue almost into 1812-1814. Ger- man writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, a contemporary of the composer, pointed out concrete reminiscences, for example of Cherubini, in the Coriolan Overture and Schumann perceived similar influ- ences of French composer Méhul in the Fifth Symphony. But symphonies were the genre where the composer continued the traditions of C. Ph. E. Bach, Haydn and Mozart.
Underlying the Fifth Symphony is a short motif, which has come to be perceived almost as the ultimate em- bodiment of Beethoven’s style. Interpretations of the symphony’s content has been traditionally dominated by a somewhat textbook treatment in terms of overcoming grief and torment, the spiritual victory of man and his will, and of the main motif – as a theme of the Fate. This motif proceeds through all stages of the first movement. On the testimony of Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny, the theme was prompted by a bird song. The second movement is cast as a set of variations. The third is a scherzo, which treats once again the “motif of the Fate,” and whose climax opens into the fourth and final movement of the symphony, introducing the C Major march in what is the ultimate apotheosis of the symphony.
The symphony occupies a unique place in the development of the concept of instrumental achievement. Unprecedented in the history of the symphony genre, Beethoven introduced trombones, double-bassoon and a piccolo. Only Mozart before him had used trom- bonesm namely in the damnation scene from Don Giovanni.
The Fifth Symphony, as well as the Sixth after it, were dedicated to Prince Andrey Razumovsky, Russian Royal Envoy to Austria, and to Joseph Franz Maximilian, the Seventh Prince Lobkowitz, who both acted as his patrons. Ignaz von Seyfried made the following reference about the former: „It is well known that Beethoven was as much at home in the Razumovsky establishment as a hen in her coop. Everything he wrote was taken warm from the nest and tried out in the frying pan.“
The first public performance, as is usually the case, failed to elicit the success worthy of the symphony. The com- poser’s benefit concert of 22 December 1808 featured works written in the two years following the completion of the Fifth: The Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth piano concert (elsewhere there is a reference that it was actually the Thrird), the Coriolan Over- ture, the Mass in C Major and the Fantasia for piano, choir and orchestra Opus 80.
The concert passed without success for a number of reasons – a grandiose program of over four-hour duration; the utterly unheated venue of the Vienna Theatre; the inadequate preparation of performers. This was compounded by the blunt reactions of Beethoven during rehearsals, his clashes with soloists and orchestra members, which led to his being expelled from the venue.
When Mendelssohn played excerpts from this symphony to Goethe, the latter observed: „It’s tremendous, quite mad; one could fear the whole house might collapse…”