The Fifth Symphony did not begin public life auspiciously. It was composed in fits and starts from 1804-1808 as Beethoven’s deafness grew, against the looming threat of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s 1805 occupation of Vienna. The premiere in 1808 made relatively little impression, as the orchestra did not perform well, having had only one rehearsal. But soon, critics and audiences found themselves enraptured with the symphony. The opening four-note theme of the first movement is one of the most recognized moments in Western music, and according to legend Beethoven characterized the theme as “Fate knocking at the door.” The theme pervades and unifies the first movement, and returns in later movements; hence the symphony’s status as the iconic example of the ideal of musical “organicism.” The Fifth has also long been understood as a metaphorical heroic journey “from darkness to light,” and has been identified with Beethoven’s own struggles to overcome personal adversity.
This was written by Molly Barnes, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Department of Music. She wrote it for the program of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in November 2011.