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Program Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

September 15, 2023

Program Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Featured Artists

Peter Oundjian, conductor
Hélène Grimaud, piano

Program Dates

Friday, September 15, 2023 at 7:30PM
Saturday, September 16, 2023 at 7:30PM
Sunday, September 17 at 1:00PM


CARLOS SIMON Fate Now Conquers
JOHANNES BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

  1. Maestoso
  2. Adagio
  3. Rondo: Allegro non troppo

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Allegro
  4. Allegro
Composer Carlos Simon

Carlos Simon (b. 1986), Fate Now Conquers

Carlos Simon was born on April 13, 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia. Fate Now Conquers was composed in 2020 and premiered digitally on October 8, 2020 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is about 5 minutes. This is the Colorado Symphony premiere.

Carlos Simon, Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence from 2021 to 2024, was born in Atlanta in 1986, grew up playing organ at his father’s church, immersed himself in music in high school, earned degrees from Georgia State University and Morehouse College, and completed his doctorate at the University of Michigan, where he studied with Evan Chambers and Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty. Simon also studied in Baden, Austria and at the Hollywood Music Workshop and New York University’s Film Scoring Summer Workshop. He taught at Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta before being appointed in 2019 to the faculty of Georgetown University, where his projects include a new composition dedicated to the slaves who helped build the school. Simon has composed works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo voice, chorus, concert band and film, several of them on commissions from such noted organizations as the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra; the gospel-influenced Amen! (2017) was commissioned by the University of Michigan Band in celebration of the university’s 200th anniversary. He has also performed as keyboardist with the Boston Pops, Jackson Symphony and St. Louis Symphony, toured Japan in 2018 under the sponsorship of the United States Embassy in Tokyo and US/ Japan Foundation performing in some of the country’s most sacred temples and important concert venues, served as music director and keyboardist for Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Holliday, and appeared internationally with Grammy-nominated soul artist Angie Stone.

Simon received the 2021 Medal of Excellence of the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to promoting and recognizing Black and Latinx classical music and musicians. His additional honors include the Marvin Hamlisch Film Scoring Award, Theodore Presser Foundation Award, ASCAP’s Morton Gould Young Composer Award, fellowships from the Sundance Institute and Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music, and a residency at the 2021 Ojai Festival.

Fate Now Conquers was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra to pair with a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on a concert in March 2020. That concert was postponed by the pandemic and the work was premiered, digitally, on October 8, 2020 under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Simon wrote of it, “Fate Now Conquers was inspired by a journal entry from Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebook written in 1815:

Iliad. The Twenty-Second Book
But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share
In my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit
And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.

“Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate — jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona; frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depicting the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.

“We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from the Iliad, in the end it seems that Beethoven relinquished himself to fate. Fate now conquers.”

Composer Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, and died on April 3, 1897 in Vienna. He began composing his First Piano Concerto in 1854, but did not complete the score until shortly before its premiere on January 22, 1859, at which the composer was the soloist and Joseph Joachim conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Theater, Hanover. The score calls for woodwinds and trumpets in pairs, four horns, timpani and strings. Duration is about 44 minutes. The last performance by the orchestra took place April 11-13, 2015. Douglas Boyd conducted and Natasha Paremski performed on piano.

In 1854, Brahms set out to produce a symphony in D minor as his first major orchestral work, and, to that end, he sketched three movements in short score. The first movement was orchestrated, but Brahms was not satisfied with the result, and he decided to transform his short score into a sonata for two pianos, but this still did not fulfill his vision — the ideas were too symphonic in breadth to be satisfactorily contained by just pianos, yet too pianistic in figuration to be completely divorced from the keyboard. He was quite stuck. In 1857, the composer Julius Otto Grimm, a staunch friend, suggested that his 24-year-old colleague try his sketch as a piano concerto. Brahms thought the advice sound, and he went back to work. He selected two movements to retain for the concerto and put aside the third, which emerged ten years later as the chorus “Behold All Flesh” in The German Requiem. Things proceeded slowly but steadily and only after two more years of work was the Piano Concerto No. 1 ready for performance.

The Concerto’s stormy first movement is among the most passionate and impetuous of all Brahms’ compositions. This movement follows the Classical model of double-exposition concerto form, with an extended initial presentation of much of the important thematic material by the orchestra alone (“first exposition”). The soloist enters and leads through the “second exposition,” which is augmented to include a lyrical second theme, not heard earlier, played by the unaccompanied piano. The central section of the movement begins with the tempestuous main theme, a Romantic motive filled with snarling trills and anguished melodic leaps. The recapitulation enters on a titanic wave of sound, as though the crest of some dark, brooding emotion were crashing onto a barren, rocky shore. The lovely second theme returns (played again by the solo piano), but eventually gives way to the foreboding mood of the main theme.

The Adagio is a movement of transcendent beauty, of quiet, twilight emotions couched in a mood of gentle melancholy — of “something spiritual” in Clara Schumann’s words. Above the first line of the conductor’s score, Brahms penciled in the phrase “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” — “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This reference, really an informal dedication, is to his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, often addressed by his friends as “Mynheer Domine,” who died while Brahms was working on the Concerto. Such an overt association of his music with definite sentiments was unusual for this circumspect composer, and he later crossed out the Latin phrase. The emotion of deep tranquility, however, remains.

The finale, perhaps modeled on that of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is a weighty rondo. Its theme is related to the lyrical second subject of the opening movement by one of those masterful strokes that Brahms used to unify his large works. Among the episodes that separate the returns of the rondo theme is one employing a carefully devised fugue that grew directly from Brahms’ thorough study of the music of Bach. After a brief, restrained cadenza, the coda turns to the brighter key of D major to provide a stirring conclusion to this Concerto, a work of awesome achievement for the 26-year-old composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, and died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna. The earliest sketches for the Symphony No. 5 date from 1800 but the score was largely composed between 1805 and 1808. The composer conducted the work’s premiere on December 22, 1808 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. The score calls for woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. Duration is about 31 minutes. This piece was last performed by the orchestra February 25-27, 2022, with Markus Stenz conducting.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the archetypal example of the technique and content of the form. Its overall structure is not one of four independent movements linked simply by tonality and style, as in the typical 18th-century example, but is rather a carefully devised whole in which each serves to carry the work inexorably toward its end. The progression from minor to major, from dark to light, from conflict to resolution is at the very heart of the “meaning” of this work. The triumphant nature of the final movement as the logical outcome of all that preceded it established a model for the symphonies of the Romantic era. The psychological progression toward the finale — the relentless movement toward a life-affirming close — is one of Beethoven’s most important technical and emotional legacies, and it established for following generations the concept of how such a creation could be structured, and in what manner it should engage the listener.

The opening gesture is the most famous beginning in all of classical music. It establishes the stormy temper of the Allegro by presenting the germinal cell from which the entire movement grows. Though it is possible to trace this memorable four-note motive through most of the measures of the movement, the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey pointed out that the power of the music is not contained in this fragment, but rather in the “long sentences” that Beethoven built from it. The gentler second theme derives from the opening motive, and gives only a brief respite in the headlong rush driving the movement. It provides the necessary contrast while doing nothing to impede the music’s flow. The development section is a paragon of cohesion, logic and concision. The recapitulation roars forth after a series of breathless chords that pass from woodwinds to strings and back. The stark hammer-blows of the closing chords bring the movement to its powerful end.

The second movement is a set of variations on two contrasting themes. The first theme, presented by violas and cellos, is sweet and lyrical in nature; the second, heard in horns and trumpets, is heroic. The ensuing variations on the themes alternate to produce a movement by turns gentle and majestic.

The Scherzo returns the tempestuous character of the opening movement, as the four-note motto from the first movement is heard again in a brazen setting led by the horns. The fughetta, the “little fugue,” of the central trio is initiated by the cellos and basses. The Scherzo returns with the mysterious tread of the plucked strings, after which the music wanes until little more than a heartbeat from the timpani remains. Then begins another accumulation of intensity, first gradually, then more quickly, as a link to the finale, which arrives with a glorious proclamation, like brilliant sun bursting through ominous clouds.

The finale, set in the triumphant key of C major, is jubilant and martial. The sonata form proceeds apace. At the apex of the development, however, the mysterious end of the Scherzo is invoked to serve as the link to the return of the main theme in the recapitulation. It also recalls and compresses the emotional journey of the entire Symphony. The closing pages repeat the cadence chords extensively as a way of discharging the work’s enormous accumulated energy.

Concerning the effect of the “struggle to victory” that is inherent in the structure of the Fifth Symphony, a quote that Beethoven scribbled in a notebook of the Archduke Rudolf, one of his aristocratic piano students, is pertinent: “Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”

©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda