Beethoven’s Fate Symphony: The Music, the Drama and its Ablest Raconteur

Beethoven in his so-called ‘middle period’ was quite prolific. He established a different style of composition, something not quite romantic yet, but distinct from the classics. This period of unorthodox output began in the early 1800s, and what became a distinct pattern of Beethoven’s music was his style of organic growth – music not completed in his mind, but rather, evolving and perfected while scribbling on paper.

The autobiographical elements in Beethoven’s music of this period have always fascinated me. This was also just about the time Beethoven realised that his hearing impairment was not a mere malady but a permanent and progressive degeneration that would eventually dispossess him completely of the most precious of his senses. For a man of his temperament and disposition, we can only imagine his sense of devastation, almost betrayal, at this realisation. And yet, he did not break. Despite and in defiance of his despair he, as if, took his formidable foe – his fate – head on, with his own currency of expression – his music, and nowhere is this better manifested than in his Fifth Symphony, a composition of this period.

The symphony opens with a fiery three-short-and-one-long note motif – a motif that is undeniably the most famous phrase in all of western orchestral music.

We may never know, for certain, what this motif meant to him. But, somehow it was so significant that not only did he compose this symphony – arguably his most famous – around it, but it also found place in quite a lot of his other works.
Countless conductors have interpreted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is virtually impossible to play it in a manner such that it conveys something different from what the composer wanted. But in my opinion, the interpretation by Carlos Kleiber in 1974 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra takes it to an exalted height and remains the most sublime till date.

There is something about this particular recording that paints the vivid image of a battlefield in our mind and personifies the instruments into characters of a very dramatic play. Interpretation being the cornerstone of any performing art, the conductor’s job is to interpret the message of the composer and deliver it to his audience, and this Kleiber did exceptionally.

The fervent motif of the first theme sets the tone and soon the music becomes an epic battle where Kleiber styles the composer as a defiant warrior and his fate as the antagonist – ruthless and diabolical.

The second theme, in contrast, is sweet and soft. In fact, often when one hears the second theme for the first time, they tend to believe that they have somehow escaped from the blazing first. But they are mistaken. The same three-short-and-one-long note motif, though subdued, goes on ominously underneath the lyrical theme, played by the lower strings.
In an exquisite section of the first movement, instead of the violins, a solo oboe plays a cadenza solemnly, heightening the hopelessness of the protagonist with the unrelenting antagonist at its punishing best, with fusillades of dissonant chords, wild key shifts and strenuous tremolos. By the end of the first movement, however, although it appears that the protagonist is completely decimated, he never resorts to self-pity. He is determined to fight back with all his might and vigour.

The second movement is a brief period of self-assessment and resolution. The warrior appears to be learning from his mistakes and taking a break from the pessimistic theme and turbulence that haunted him in the first movement.
The third movement is a scherzo. For a minor key, this movement is rather cheerful and affirmative. The confident second theme, which has the same rhythm as the opening motif, is played by the horns at the beginning, displaying an abundance of enthusiasm and excitement. However, as the later trio section dissolves into the scherzo again, it is rather fascinating to note that the bellow of the second theme is now diminished to a whimper by the woodwind section of the orchestra.

This is where it seems, our hero is approaching his adversary again, this time with rejuvenated vigour. Kleiber quietens the orchestra down to the softest dynamic marking, which is so befitting. As one approaches his foe, it is only natural to quieten down in order to spring an element of surprise. He now demands the timpani to keep the rhythm and the higher strings to play the opening theme repeatedly only with slight variations, and gradually the music grows louder and louder, culminating in a huge crescendo to enter the jubilant fourth and last movement.

We are inclined to think that in this movement our warrior achieves immediate victory, suggested by the powerful opening theme and the heroic utterances of the horns and the woodwinds. For me though, the real triumph lies in the recapitulation section of this movement.

This in my view is how the drama unfolds: Just after the heroic second theme of this movement, when it seems that fate is almost cornered, the violins play a modulating theme, which has an unusual F-sharp – the celli and basses repeat a confused ostinato, as if stunned by the sudden diversion and almost asking, ‘what’s going on?’ This ‘wrong’ note remains rooted obstinately, diverging from C major to G major, ushering in a distraction in the ranks whereby fate slips through narrowly, escaping the decisive blow.

The movement develops thereafter, with fate’s army – the trumpets, horns and timpani – hammering home the rhythm of the signature motif. At this point, it seems our warrior is seriously confronted, with his own infantry – the violins – shifting from major to minor to seek refuge, until he is completely overpowered. Relentless fate however, not only wants its adversary vanquished, but also to sink him in that critical error he made – the F-sharp note. The violins exhaust themselves to a tremolo in that note, while the trumpets and horns charge up to strike.

Our protagonist, however, is not giving up just yet. In a last-ditch effort to salvage his situation, he finally musters enough strength to shift the scale from the gloomy, chaotic minor to C major, the home key, with the woodwinds in his support and the brasses joining in later. A turbulent but optimistic passage of music follows. With powerful tremolos and vibrant harmonies, the tempo seems to increase suddenly giving us an impression that our hero is on the offensive again, frantically searching for the foe who has escaped again, apparently petrified by his sudden rejuvenation.

Now the music reaches its most gripping moment. With the dynamics lowered to a pianissimo, the exuberance of the warrior seems to wither away, when suddenly a set of familiar phrases marshals a sense of chilling déjà vu – our warrior as if somewhat unexpectedly finds his foe completely unwary, and immediately commands his legion to quieten down again and prepare for the final conflict, bringing us back to the third movement.

Musically, this is a brilliant technique to set the stage for the recapitulation. We are introduced once again to the same themes. This time at the end of the second theme, the violins and the woodwinds play massive chords as if with a coded message for the basses to interpret and uphold.

There is also a significant difference in the theme played by the violins. Our hero does not repeat the same ‘mistake’, and lowers the F-sharp by a semi-tone, to F. The celli and basses also alter their ostinati by a tone, from C to B-flat, and thus delivers the decisive final blow, asserting unequivocal victory, in the robust home key.

The most sublime segment of the symphony, follows – the lower strings breathing a sigh of relief at the fall of the daunting foe, overlapped by the woodwinds doing the same. Beethoven leaves us to bask in the glory of victory and the warmth of a cadence. There is nothing left to do, but rejoice. The movement recapitulates with a cheerful and expansive coda in a presto tempo, signifying our hero’s joy, excitement, zest and above all, his undying hope. Kleiber interprets this entire saga with extraordinary poise, imposing imagery in every phrase and delivering Beethoven’s immortal message.

Beethoven poured himself in his music. His music is as unapologetic as he was. He was unashamed to show his true self, unabashed to show his faults. He shared his agonies and ecstasies, his defeats and triumphs equally with all of us, his devout listeners. The absolute mastery of form is what separated Beethoven from the others. His epic stories however, are, only enjoyable if construed and conveyed by a capable raconteur. As for his Fifth Symphony, Carlos Kleiber unquestionably is the greatest.

Adityavardhan Sengupta is a pianist and a student of music with special interest in the works of Beethoven. 

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha