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This Is Why Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 Is So Incredibly Popular

Wikipedia Commons
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered in 1808 and was praised as "one of the most important works of the time" by critic E.T.A. Hoffman.  Now more than 200 years later, the work retains its extraordinary appeal.

It has no predecessor, no successor in composition.

You've heard those first four notes—quoted in classical and popular compositions, referenced in films and television. That same rhythmic motif (which in Morse Code, spells V for Victory) opened the BBC radio broadcasts during World War II. 

And the symphony itself?  It's one of the most recognized in music history. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach beams when he describes it, calling it "phenomenal."

Listen Sunday, August 29th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1 and on Monday, August 30th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2, to heara re-broadcast of a concert featuring Christoph Eschenbach leading the Philadelphia Orchestrain Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

"It has no predecessor. No successor in composition. The first movement is one of the most modern ideas," he says.  "To have a motto like (he sings) 'Ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum.' And to build out of this little piece a whole movement is phenomenal! Actually it’s through the whole symphony. It comes again and again and again, this motif."

Beethoven started his Fifth Symphony in 1804, and he knew he was going deaf. He wrote it over nearly four years, when he also was busy on other compositions, including string quartets, concertos, and two other symphonies. Grappling with fate, he summoned defiance and triumph, with transcendent innovation. 

"The other thing which is very, very amazing and it was never written before," says Eschenbach,"[is] the transition from the third movement to the last movement.  This misterioso with timpani,  as soft as possible....  It's mystery, and then it breaks into C Major!"  

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony premiered in a concert in 1808. Over the next century and beyond, several new American orchestras chose it for their inaugural concerts, including The New York Philharmonic in 1842, and in 1900, The Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the magic of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.