Honored by music lovers of temperaments as varied as Peanuts‘Schroeder og And Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most famous composers in the western classical music canon.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor is without a doubt one of his most acclaimed and frequently performed works, thanks in large part to its dramatic opening motif –
Music educator Hanako Sawada’s entertaining TED-Ed lesson, animated by Yael Reisfeld above, dives into the story behind this symphony, “one of the most explosive pieces of music ever composed.”
Middle and high school teachers will be happy to know that the creators lean into the piece’s increased emotions and portray the composer as a tortured genius whose penetrating gaze is more blue than Game of Thrones’ Natkonge.
Beethoven already enjoyed a successful reputation at the time of the symphony’s premiere in 1808, but not because he worked in the service of religion or wealthy patrons like his peers.
Instead, he was a bad ass from the early 19th century, prioritizing self-expression and pouring his emotions into compositions, which he then sold to various music publishers.
With the fifth, he really shook off the rigid structures of the prevailing classical norms and embraced romance in all its glorious turmoil.
The famous opening motif is repeated to the point of occupation:
Throughout the piece, the subject is carried around the orchestra like a whisper and gradually reaches more and more instruments until it becomes a roar.
Gifted teenagers who are familiar with this feeling are equipped with the inner trombones, piccolo and counter bassoons of the kind that make the play even more urgent.
Just wait until they get hold of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved Letters, written a few years after the symphony, when the hearing loss he was struggling with had developed into almost total deafness.
Whether it was the composer (and not his cinema) who characterized the central motif as the sound of “Fate knocks on the door”, it is a poignant and captivating performance.
Take a quiz, join a guided discussion, and adapt Hanako Sawada’s lesson, “The Secrets of the World’s Most Famous Symphony,” here.
Listen to the symphony in its entirety below.
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Ayun Halliday is chief primatologist in East Village Inky zine and author, most recently by Creative, not famous: The little potato manifesto. follow her @AyunHalliday.