B: Beethoven’s 5th (The Meaning Behind the Music)

Beethoven

Beethoven’s fifth symphony was first performed in Vienna in 1808, and was soon described by E.T.A. Hoffman as “one of the most important works of the time.” Through the years, this impression hasn’t faded in the least. This symphony continues to be one of the most recognized classical compositions, and is one of the most frequently played symphonies.[1]

So what was Beethoven’s magic ingredient? What is it that makes this particular piece of music so special?

Layers of Meaning

According to the Principle of Inexhaustibility, no matter what art form you’re working with a truly excellent piece will encourage participants to reexamine the work again and again, finding something completely new with each experience. This is accomplished when a work of art has not just one obvious message, but instead contains several deep layers of meaning. A quality piece should be a bit like an onion – participants should be able to peel back the rich layers of meaning to make fresh and exciting discoveries.

This is something that Beethoven accomplished beautifully – and he only needed four notes. The “short-short-short-long” theme, which opens his Fifth Symphony, is one of the most widely recognized musical themes of all time. And just why is this? Layers of meaning.

In Morse Code, this rhythm stands for the letter “V.” For this reason, many have called this piece the “Victory Symphony,” and it was often played to motivate the troops during World War II. Of course, Beethoven had no idea what atrocities World War II would bring when he wrote the piece. The letter “V” is still significant, however, since this symbol also happens to be the Roman numeral for “5,” and this was his 5th symphony, after all.

Of course, Beethoven also struggled with anger and depression after losing his ability to hear, and his health was beginning to deteriorate. Many music historians have viewed this theme as Beethoven’s way of depicting the Dark Fate which was knocking on his door.

Taking Risks

Beethoven will also live in infamy for breaking the rules of the Classical Period. According to the customs of his day, musical compositions were to be soft in volume, perfectly symmetrical and balanced, and well civilized (think Mozart). But Beethoven refused to fit this mold, choosing instead to express his inner emotions with loud pieces which moved in surprising directions. He was determined that his voice would be heard, for all the world to hear. The result was the end of the Classical Period, and the beginning of the Romantic Era.

As an artist, you can choose to repeat the pattern that others have left for you. Or you can choose to be creative and take artistic risks. Choosing to take a risk will be big – you’ll either be a big success or a giant flop. But Beethoven would be the first to tell you that it’s worth the chance.

Listening to Others

As a Christian artist, the most striking aspect of this piece is the desperation Beethoven seemed to feel when composing it. He was a musician who had lost his ability to hear, and this infamous “short-short-short-long” theme can be heard as his frantic cry for help.

It just reminds me that a majority of the people in our lives are crying for help – each in their own way – if we’d only take the time to truly listen. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Christians are commanded to “be quick to hear and slow to speak” in James 1:19.

The world is crying out… are you listening?

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (Allegro con brio) – Ludwig van Beethoven

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[1] Schauffler, Robert Haven (1933). Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, & Company. p. 211.

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The Classics.jpg

This post was submitted as part of the A to Z Challenge, where participants agree to write an article that corresponds to each letter of the alphabet, posting every day of the month of April (except Sundays).

Here on The Artistic Christian,  my theme for the month is The Classics.  Each day I’ll examine a book, film, or work of art that has become a beloved classic and discuss what has made it such a success, and what eternal themes it contains that Christian artists can use as modern illustrations.

For daily reflections from my personal travels around the world, check out my companion blog, A Shepherd’s Reflections, where my theme for April is Reflections From Around the World.

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43 thoughts on “B: Beethoven’s 5th (The Meaning Behind the Music)

  1. Beethoven is one of my favorite composers. Not only do I enjoy his music, but I am inspired when I recall how even after he lost his hearing, he continued to bless the world with beautiful music. Just last night, our pastor was relating how when we go through valleys in our lives, we can choose to moan and fret and worry and pout over our circumstances, or we can choose to be a blessing to those around us by doing hard things in the hard times. He used Beethoven as an example … blessing others even through his deafness. Thanks, John Mark, for another encouraging post!

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    1. Wow… how crazy that your pastor was thinking of Beethoven at the same time I was! It really is an inspiring story of persisting and finding triumph in dark times…given his situation, I might have given up!

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  2. During a trip to Vienna 3 years ago, I was fortunate to attend a symphony at Karlskirche, St Charles Cathedral, of the performance of Beethoven’s V—it was really specially as it was a more intimate performance verses some large Opera House extravaganza— and to witness such a performance by a small symphonic group in a beautiful Baroque Cathedral was absolutely magical as well as stunning—-a wonderful reflection John—-Julie

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  3. Thanks for this lesson on Beethoven- I didn’t know any of these things about him and his music other than he was going deaf. I do love to listen to his music.

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  4. I learned from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (The one used in Disney’s Fantasia) that most of his music revolves around musical thunderstorms and harsh weather… Inner turmoil turned into intricately patterned beauty and music. Thank you for adding to my growing list of insights into Beethoven and his music. See? I listen carefully too!

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  5. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the first symphony in the standard repertoire to use trombones. Beethoven is said to have considered the trombone to be the “voice of God.” Perhaps that is what makes it so fabulous.

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  6. Besides of course his beautiful music, I also love Beethoven because he was a fellow left-hander. It’s been suggested that since lefties are used to finding solutions in a world built the other way around, it’s only natural so many of us are in creative and groundbreaking fields. Beethoven could find a way to still compose music even after he lost his hearing, since he’d already learnt how to find his way around a world wired in the opposite direction.

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  7. Beautiful thoughts about art and artists. As familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth is to me I did not know about the “code” of the notes meaning Victory. Thanks. I think of you as a gifted artist.

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