Beethoven's Works
Analyzing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5: The Famous Four Notes

Analyzing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5: The Famous Four Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven stands as a colossus in the realm of classical music, renowned for his revolutionary compositions and indomitable spirit. As one of the most influential composers of all time, his works have become benchmarks of classical music. Among his masterpieces, Symphony No. 5, with its unmistakable four-note motif, holds a special place both in the annals of music history and in the hearts of listeners worldwide. This motif, often transcribed as “da-da-da-dum,” has become emblematic not only of Beethoven’s oeuvre but of classical music itself.

Beethoven composed Symphony No. 5 during a tumultuous period in his life between 1804 and 1808, a period marked by progressive hearing loss which threatened his very vocation. Yet, he persisted, channeling his adversity into his music with a fervor that has inspired countless generations. The symphony premiered on December 22, 1808, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, in a concert that also debuted his Sixth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto. Given its enduring legacy, it’s worth exploring the symphony’s intricate architecture, its historical context, and its ongoing influence.

The First Movement: Allegro con brio

The opening movement of Symphony No. 5, Allegro con brio, is arguably the most famous in all of classical music. The four-note motif, sometimes described as “fate knocking at the door,” sets the tone for a dynamic and dramatic journey. The motif itself is so stark and powerful that it commands immediate attention, and its use throughout the movement provides a unifying theme that anchors the listener amidst the symphonic complexity.

From a structural standpoint, the Allegro con brio is a textbook example of sonata form, comprising an exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. The exposition introduces the main themes, primarily centered around the famous motif. The development section explores these themes in various keys and textures, pushing the boundaries of harmonic innovation. The recapitulation restates the original themes, albeit with some modifications, leading towards a dramatic coda that brings the movement to a powerful conclusion.

Beethoven’s use of rhythm, particularly his insistence on short-short-short-long patterns, gives the movement its intrinsic drive and sense of urgency. This rhythmic intensity, coupled with dynamic contrasts, makes the Allegro con brio not just a listening experience but an emotional journey.

The Second Movement: Andante con moto

While the first movement is characterized by its intensity, the second movement, Andante con moto, offers a stark contrast. This movement is contemplative and lyrical, providing a much-needed counterbalance to the urgent Allegro con brio. The Andante con moto consists of two themes that Beethoven alternates and varies, creating a tapestry of sound that is both soothing and complex.

The movement is in a double variation form, meaning that each theme undergoes several variations. The first theme is more stately and dignified, often characterized by dotted rhythms that impart a sense of grandeur. The second theme is more flowing and melodic, providing a sense of serenity. Beethoven masterfully interweaves these themes, showcasing his talent for thematic development and variation.

In the context of the symphony, the Andante con moto serves as a moment of respite, a calm in the storm. It allows the listener to reflect on the emotional intensity of the first movement while preparing for the dramatic developments to come.

The Third Movement: Scherzo – Allegro

The third movement of Symphony No. 5 is a Scherzo and Trio, a form that Beethoven favored in his middle and late periods. Traditionally, the Scherzo replaced the more sedate Minuet in symphonic works, offering a faster, more spirited alternative. In the case of Symphony No. 5, the Scherzo – Allegro serves as an energetic prelude to the final movement.

With its mysterious and somewhat haunting opening theme, the Scherzo evokes a sense of anticipation. This theme is then contrasted with a more playful and rhythmic section that adds an element of buoyancy to the movement. The Trio section follows, featuring a lighter and more dance-like theme, after which the Scherzo material returns in a modified form.

The Scherzo – Allegro is particularly interesting for its use of orchestration. Beethoven employs the full range of the orchestra to create a rich tapestry of sound, with particular emphasis on the lower strings and brass. This movement also sets the stage for the triumphant finale, building a sense of anticipation that is finally resolved in the fourth movement.

The Fourth Movement: Allegro

The final movement, Allegro, serves as the triumphant conclusion to Symphony No. 5. This movement is a tour-de-force, characterized by its energetic themes and dramatic development. As with the previous movements, the Allegro is constructed in sonata form, but with an added sense of grandeur and finality.

The opening of the Allegro is marked by a burst of sound, a jubilant theme that is immediately captivating. This theme is then developed and explored, with Beethoven employing a range of techniques to create a sense of drama and excitement. The movement is also notable for its use of orchestration, with the addition of trombones, piccolos, and contrabassoons, which add to the overall sense of grandeur.

The Allegro serves as a fitting conclusion to Symphony No. 5, bringing the journey to a powerful and satisfying close. The themes introduced in the previous movements are revisited and resolved, creating a sense of unity and coherence that is truly remarkable. In many ways, the Allegro encapsulates the essence of Beethoven’s music – a blend of drama, emotion, and technical mastery.

Historical Context

Understanding Symphony No. 5 requires some appreciation of the historical and personal context in which it was composed. During the early 19th century, Europe was a continent in turmoil, shaped by the Napoleonic Wars which dramatically influenced Beethoven’s outlook and music. Beethoven’s own life was also in a state of upheaval. His progressive hearing loss isolated him from society and posed an existential threat to his career as a composer and performer. Yet, despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Beethoven produced some of his most enduring works during this period.

Symphony No. 5 was composed between 1804 and 1808, a time when Beethoven was grappling with his increasing deafness. This condition profoundly affected his social interactions and led him to contemplate his mortality, but it also drove him to new heights of creativity.

The premiere of Symphony No. 5 in 1808 was part of a lengthy concert that lasted over four hours. Despite the cold theater and under-rehearsed orchestra, the symphony was met with great enthusiasm and has remained one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works. Today, it stands not just as a testament to Beethoven’s genius, but as an emblem of the resilience and enduring power of the human spirit.

Legacy and Influence

The legacy of Symphony No. 5 extends far beyond its initial reception. It has come to symbolize the power of human resilience and the triumph over adversity. The symphony’s motifs have found their way into popular culture, from television commercials to movie scores, becoming a universal shorthand for drama and triumph.

Notably, Symphony No. 5 has influenced countless composers and musicians. Its structure, themes, and orchestration have been studied and emulated by a wide range of artists. From Johannes Brahms to Gustav Mahler, the shadow of Beethoven’s Fifth looms large over the subsequent generations of composers.

The symphony also played a significant role in the development of the Romantic era in music, influencing the shift from the classical formality to more expressive and emotional compositions. Its impact is still felt today, as it continues to be performed and celebrated by orchestras around the world.


Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 remains one of the most iconic pieces of classical music ever composed. Its famous four-note motif has transcended time and genre, becoming an indelible part of our cultural landscape. The symphony as a whole is a testament to Beethoven’s genius, his mastery of form and orchestration, and his ability to convey profound emotion through music.

Despite the personal and historical challenges he faced, Beethoven managed to create a work of art that resonates with audiences to this day. Symphony No. 5 is not just a piece of music; it is a symbol of human resilience and the power of creativity. As we listen to its powerful themes and dramatic development, we are reminded of the enduring legacy of one of the greatest composers of all time.