Lesson Plans

Music Criticism

Analysing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (Movement I)

Critical evaluation will be undertaken here in two stages. In the first stage, you will listen to a performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, recorded in February of 2003 with Pinchas Zukerman conducting. Listening and analytical skills will be employed. In the second stage, you will compare the first recording with another interpretation of the same music recorded in 1983, this time conducted by Franco Mannino who was the NAC Orchestra’s music director at the time.

Of all Beethoven’s works, the Fifth Symphony is without doubt his best-known, the most often played and the most frequently recorded. The first performance took place in Vienna on December 22, 1808 with the composer himself conducting, even though he was already deaf by now. The four-hour, all-Beethoven concert also included his Sixth Symphony (Pastorale), the Fourth Piano Concerto with Beethoven as soloist, the Choral Fantasy and various other choral works. That first audience was not won over by the Fifth Symphony, partly owing to the fact that the orchestra was not up to the demands of the music. One month later, when it was played in Leipzig, it met with a warm reception.

When the symphony was heard in Paris in 1828, the critic François-Joseph Fétis wrote in La Revue musicale: “Such a work goes beyond music. It is no longer a matter of flutes, horns, violins and double basses; it is the world, the universe set in motion.” For E.T.A. Hoffmann, the symphony “supremely expresses romanticism, romanticism that leads us into the realm of the infinite.” The poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goëthe exclaimed: “This is amazing! It is totally mad! One feared the whole house would come crashing down.” Hector Berlioz, a critic as well as a composer, wrote in the Gazette musicale: “The audience, in a fit of excitement, covered the orchestra with its howling. … A nervous spasm seized the entire hall.” The composer André Jolivet affirmed that the first movement was “one of the most indisputable musical successes of all time.” And now you - what would you have written?

Listening to the first version

The key of C minor, seldom used in Beethoven’s time, confers on the music a feeling of high drama or tragedy. Do you feel that Zukerman’s interpretation emphasizes this element?

The first movement’s famous rhythmic motif, immediately recognized the world over and that Beethoven is supposed to have said represents “fate knocking at the door,” serves as the basic material not only throughout this movement but for the rest of the symphony as well. Right at the very beginning, this motif is heard twice in succession, but not exactly the same way. The second time, it is played a step lower in pitch and the last note is held longer. The motif is tossed about the string section, then played by the full orchestra. What kind of mood does this interpretation convey: urgency? majesty? the dance? lightness? heaviness? boredom? Something else, perhaps?

This is interrupted by a horn fanfare (at 47” into the performance) announcing the arrival of the second subject, a more lyrical idea. Can you hear the difference between the two ideas? Does the orchestra make the contrast clear?

The first movement is particularly well balanced in its formal structure. The exposition consists of 124 measures (these are repeated). The development section (beginning at 3’ 2”), based entirely on the famous four-note motif, consists of 123 measures. The recapitulation (4’ 34”) lasts 126 measures but its progress is momentarily halted for a quiet oboe solo (4’ 45”). Finally we have a coda (6’ 5”) of 129 measures. Do you sense this balance while listening or do you find the structure lacks cohesiveness?

There are three approaches a conductor may take in interpreting this movement: majestically and seriously, in a somewhat controlled manner, or with a sense of great haste. Which interpretive choice does Pinchas Zukerman make? Do you find his choice convincing or would you prefer to hear the movement played faster or slower?

Write a critical evaluation of this performance based on some of the considerations discussed here. Give your overall impression also. The reader will want to know if it is worth bothering with and if there is anything to be gained by hearing it. Convince the reader with your point of view by using clear, vivid language.

The second performance

Now that you are familiar with the music in one interpretation, you are ready to listen to the second, recorded by the NAC Orchestra in 1983. Are they identical? No – the second is slightly faster. Which one appeals more to you?

Do you hear differences in how the orchestra plays? Is there greater clarity of detail in one or the other? Are the brass more precise and articulate? Is the balance between different sections of the orchestra better in one than the other? Is there greater contrast of dynamics (loud and soft)?

If you had to recommend one or these two versions to a friend, which would you choose? You might find that you prefer certain aspects of one interpretation and different ones of the other. Things to consider might be tempo, balance, overall sound of the orchestra, quality of the recording itself, intonation, dynamic contrast, the way inner voices are brought out or ignored, etc.