Beethoven Symphony No. 5: The Art of the Motive

Drawing of Mozart made by Dora Stock, Dresden, April 1789, Mozarteum, Salzburg

Detail from a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1804–05, Museen der Stadt Wien

Portrait of Carl Maria von Weber, c. 1825

Drawing of Heinrich Baermann, 1829, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Germany

In 1781 Wolfgang Amadè Mozart moved to Vienna, where he wrote some of his most enduring operas and instrumental works. His first few years in this international city of about 250,000 was successful artistically and financially; he composed one of his most popular works, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and was in demand as a piano concerto performer and composer.

Other successes followed, but by the end of the decade, Mozart had not received a position (Imperial music director) as he had hoped; however, he was appointed court Kammermusicus (chamber composer), which required him to compose dance music for court balls. In May 1791, he was named assistant to the music director at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Soon after, he was asked by his friend and theater entrepreneur Emanuel Schikaneder to write Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

On one level, the Overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute sounds as if it is divided into two parts, each containing a shorter Adagio (slow) and a longer Allegro (fast) section. Three chords, separated by rests, characterize the Adagio sections.

The stability of these chords is counterbalanced by the frenetic energy of the main motive imitated throughout the Allegro sections. This motive, consisting of repeated notes followed by a quick melodic turn, is linked to an underlying three-part division in the overture.

Mozart changes the momentum without altering the pace within the Allegro sections using tension-filled chords followed by passages for winds, either in alternation with, or as a counterpoint to, the main motive.

The three chords of the Adagio section—related to the character Sarastro and, by extension, Masonic practice—return in the course of this singspiel (German opera with spoken dialogue) that centers on the prince Tamino and Pamina, a princess. In this Enlightenment fairy tale about choosing good (Sarastro) over evil (the Queen of the Night), the young lovers’ quest to be together faces a series of trials, which they surmount apart and together, and all ends happily.

A recognized piano virtuoso, Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in Vienna about a year after Mozart’s death to study with Joseph Haydn and establish his reputation as a composer.

(He had been to Vienna earlier in order to study with Mozart, but was recalled to his home in Bonn.) By the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in 1808, Beethoven was certainly well-known, with one audience member expressing his impressions in this way: “There we continued in the bitterest cold [from 6:30-10:30 pm] and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing—and still more of a loud.” The concert that night included Symphony No. 6; Piano Concerto No. 4; a concert aria; movements from the Mass in C major, op. 86; a piano improvisation; and the Choral Fantasy.

Beethoven begins the first movement of Symphony No. 5 with a compact motive. In Beethoven’s time, the source of this motive was attributed to both bird song and the concept of fate itself. In the mid-20th century, it became a symbol of resistance in the Second World War. From this condensed introduction, Beethoven permeates the first movement with this motive, whether in imitation, as a counter melody to a new idea—which is also an expansion of the motive—or proclaimed by the whole orchestra as a unit.

The second movement, Adagio, is as expansive as the first movement is compressed. Two themes, one varied and the other essentially unchanged, provide the fodder for this theme and variation form. The initial, self-contained ascending theme begins in the low strings.

Next, another rising idea enters, but cannot move beyond its highest pitch. Beethoven then re-orchestrates this latest idea to include trumpets and timpani, recalling the rhythmic motive of the first movement. Still, no matter how many instruments play this final phrase, it feels incomplete and ultimately wanes.

As Beethoven continues to alternate between these two ideas, expectations are left unfulfilled, despite the strong closing to this movement.

The unease of the second movement is intensified in the Scherzo. Here, another rising idea in cello and bass mirrors the first theme of the previous movement.

And like its predecessor, it is not completed, but interrupted by a second idea, scored for horn, a permutation of the opening of the first movement now coalesced into a single pitch.

The most surprising moment, however, is yet to come as the third movement does not end decisively. Instead, Beethoven distills everything down to a single idea—the rhythm that opened the whole symphony—played in the timpani. Gradually, Beethoven adds other instruments, creating an unequivocal sense of expectation that is resolved with the first notes of the fourth movement.

For the fourth movement, Beethoven adds trombone, contrabassoon, and piccolo, expanding the orchestral palette. Like the inner two movements, this first theme is rising; however, whereas the previous themes went only so far, this one continues to a more logical musical conclusion.

Having such a glorious moment at the beginning of the movement leaves a compositional conundrum: where to go from here? Beethoven’s answer is inspired. He recalls the stunning transition from the third to the fourth movements, but shortens it so that what was a moment of anticipation becomes a way to propel the remainder of the movement forward.

Carl Maria von Weber lived only a few years longer than Mozart, his cousin by marriage, and was, like both Mozart and Beethoven, well-versed in the compositional techniques of what is now called the Classical style. But Weber was also steeped in theatrical traditions that inform his compositional voice as much as his studies with Michael Haydn, brother of Joseph. Weber’s exposure to the theater came from his father, as did the title “von,” which Franz Anton began adding to the family name in the 1760s or 1770s. (Beethoven, too, was known to have adopted this indication of nobility when to his advantage.) Carl Maria “inherited” the title without ever realizing its dubious origins.

Weber spent a great deal of his life traveling, but his time in Darmstadt launched his career as a composer in unexpected ways. Here Weber met the former soldier and clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann for whom Weber composed his Concertino for Clarinet. The premiere of this work in Munich in the summer of 1811 caused such excitement that the then King of Bavaria immediately commissioned two new clarinet concertos from the composer. Weber wrote to a friend that because of the king’s support, “the entire orchestra is astir and wants to have concertos from me.”

Heinrich Baermann studied at the School of Military Music in Potsdam before joining a military band at the age of 14. He fought at the battles of Saalfeld and Jena, where he was captured. After escaping, he became a member of the court orchestra in Munich; he remained a part of that ensemble for the rest of his career even though he also toured throughout Europe regularly. On one occasion he arranged for Weber to join him; that tour would be another turning point in the composer’s career. Building on his new-found fame, Weber turned to mounting productions of his operas, the most enduring of which, Der Freischütz, remains a staple of the repertoire.

Weber described Baermann as “a truly great artist and admirable man,” praising his “evenness of tone and divinely tasteful phrasing.” These two qualities are fundamental to the Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, op. 73.

The first movement begins with a motive played in the bass, accompanied by violin and viola; the opening swells, holds on a fermata, and then continues to prepare for the clarinet entrance.

The clarinet line, marked con duolo (sorrowfully), transforms the rising idea of the orchestra’s motive into a descending one and virtuosic figurations exploit the range of the instrument. The suppleness in the exchanges between soloist and orchestra demonstrate Weber’s facility in presenting striking contrasts seamlessly.

Weber alternates and alters the two main ideas in the second movement. The first of these, a plaintive clarinet line,

 ends with a harmonic question while the second is played by muted horns, which are soon joined by the clarinet.

When the first idea returns, it is more turbulent than before, accentuating the sense of release that follows. It is worth noting that the horns must change crooks to reflect the change of harmony from E-flat to C major in this movement.

The final movement, a Rondo, begins with the soloist playing a jaunty and folk-like theme.

The clarinet is in control at the beginning of this movement, but as the movement continues, the soloist and orchestra begin to trade material more freely and, with the last iteration of the Rondo theme, the orchestra shares in the playing of this theme for the first time. The coda is the final flurry of activity, one final moment for the clarinet to shine against the backdrop of the orchestra.

All three compositions build larger structures on comparatively little musical material. The shorter motives offer a glimpse of what is to come, enticing the ear, and establishing a mood, one that will be expanded or subverted by what follows. The scoring of each piece is critical to this outcome, whether in the solo clarinet passages of the Weber concerto or those for winds in Mozart’s overture and Beethoven’s symphony. Equally important, each composer balances the texture of the whole ensemble, using the intersection of the melodic line with the building of musical forces to guide each work to a masterful conclusion.

Teresa M. Neff | 2018