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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods
Richard Taruskin

This famous opening (Ex. 13-5a) has many points of congruence with the opening of the Trio, op. 1, no. 3—the unison, the fermata, and the use of a brusque “announcement theme” to arrest the attention before the actual, structurally functioning “first theme” gets underway (m. 6). What is new and noteworthy in the Fifth is the way the first theme is related to the announcement theme. It is built up out of a multitude—a veritable mosaic—of motivic repetitions, all derived from the opening four-note group as if to demonstrate the process of germination. It is a theme that no one instrumental part ever gets to play in its entirety, as if to demonstrate the way in which the whole, as in any organism, transcends the mere sum of its parts.

Germination and GrowthGermination and Growth

ex. 13-5a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, mm. 1–24

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-5b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, mm. 62–65 (strings only)

And now notice that the four notes of the symphony’s “germinal seed” are grouped in exactly the same rhythm—an upbeat of three short notes to a long downbeat note—as the much-repeated idea from which the first theme in the first movement of the Trio, op. 1, no. 3, is built up (beginning in the piano part at m. 10), already referred to in the discussion of that piece as a distinctive “Beethoven rhythm” because of its pronounced forward thrust (see the end of Ex. 13-1a). That propulsive force, as Hoffmann noted, is virtually unremitting in the first movement of the Fifth, accounting for the “interrelationship among the themes that engenders that unity which alone has the power to hold the listener firmly in a single mood.” It continues to sound, for example, in the cellos and basses while the other instruments turn their attention to the ostensibly contrasting “second theme” (Ex. 13-5b), and returns in full force to inform the codetta or closing theme at the end of the exposition, as Beethoven insists on our noticing with his unusual beaming of the eighth notes (Ex. 13-5c).

Germination and GrowthGermination and Growth

ex. 13-5c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, mm. 109–21

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-6a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, II, mm. 76–77

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-6b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, II, mm. 88–96

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-6c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, III, mm. 19–26

Nor is that the only way in which the “germinal seed” makes its presence known. It recurs significantly in the other movements as well, extending “organic” unity over the entire four-movement span. One can hear it ticking like a time bomb in the second violins and violas at mm. 76–77 in the second (slow) movement (Ex. 13-6a), and again in the cellos at mm. 88–96 (Ex. 13-6b). Transformed into a two-measure idea, it informs the main theme of the third movement (informally known as the scherzo although Beethoven did not so designate it) beginning at m. 19 (Ex. 13-6c), and comes back along with the theme itself during the famously enigmatic reprise of the scherzo theme in the finale.

But that is far from its only role in the finale. As shown in Ex. 13-7a, the germinal seed-rhythm is firmly embedded in the finale’s jubilant main theme, and actually leads the theme to its highest point. More obviously, the germinal rhythm, now expressed in triplets, informs the finale’s second theme as well (Ex. 13-7b). Even the codetta is implicitly informed by it, as evidenced by the threefold pitch repetitions on the upbeats (Ex. 13-7c).

Finally, expressed as a sort of hocket, the germinal seed-rhythm launches the headlong coda of the finale on its way (Ex. 13-8a) and then, at the Presto (m. 414, Ex. 13-8b) makes explicit (in the cellos and basses) what had formerly been the “implicit” derivation of the finale’s codetta theme from the germinal seed (Ex. 13-8b).

It was the Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935) who first proposed that the original “germinal seed” be regarded as consisting not in the first four-note unison alone, but in both unison phrases, as shown in Ex. 13-9a. Only in this way, he argued, can the organic unity of the first movement be understood to the full. Indeed, when this conceptual adjustment is made, the horn call that serves as brisk transition to the second theme (Ex. 13-9b) stands revealed as the germinal theme’s direct offspring (derived by expanding the thirds to fifths).

Even more significantly, the relationship (or, at least, a relationship) becomes clear between the mysteriously becalmed, harmonically outlandish retransition (Ex. 13-9c) and the music that it interrupts. The antiphonal pairs of half notes are a sequential extension of the “horn call” idea, and the further reduction to single chords hocketing between strings and winds can now be related, through the mediating horn call, to the germinal motif.

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-7a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, IV, mm. 1–12, piccolo

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-7b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, IV mm. 45–48, first violins

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-7c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, IV, mm. 64–70, violas

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-8a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, IV, mm. 402–404

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-8b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5, in C minor, Op. 67, IV, Presto, outer string parts

The so-called “new theme” in the coda (Ex. 13-10) has been another site of contention among critics. Some have touted it as a bold deviation from the overall “organic” plan, while others have argued that it is more readily understood as a rhythmic regrouping or reaccenting of the original four-note germinal motive: instead of . On this point there has grown up a large literature of sharp, occasionally acrid, debate.

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-9a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5, in C minor, Op. 67, I, opening unisons (mm. 1–5)

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-9b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5, in C minor, Op. 67, I, horn call (mm. 59–63)

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-9c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5, in C minor, Op. 67, I, mm. 195–231

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ex. 13-10 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, first movement coda

The point, from a historical vantage point, is not to adjudicate the dispute but to characterize it. It is a new sort of musical argument, in which the meaning of instrumental music is discussed in terms of its structure. The meaning has been internalized, and the job of the critic is not so much to judge the music as to understand it, or (more practically) to help listeners understand it by explicating it. That is what was meant, later, when German critics began talking about and touting the value of “absolute” music. It meant exactly what Hoffmann meant when he called Beethoven’s instrumental music “romantic”—that is, capable of expressing what is otherwise inexpressible (and in particular, inexpressible in words). A later German composer, Richard Wagner (1813–83), defined absolute music as music that can convey “an unsayable content.”19 So it should never be imagined that “absolute” instrumental music contained or expressed nothing beyond its “organic” sound structure. The organic sound structure was the vehicle or gateway to a hitherto inaccessible realm of transcendent or ineffable meaning. The best possible illustration, as it happens, comes in the second movement of the Fifth, where as we have already observed, the germinal motive can be discerned at certain points, ticking away (“like a time bomb”). What sort of detonation does that ticking presage, and what does it mean?

The second movement of the Fifth, marked Andante con moto, is a broadly conceived, rather unusual set of variations on a theme—or to be more exact, a broadly conceived theme and two doubles, or embellished repetitions, with an extended coda—in the fairly unusual key of A♭ major, the submediant degree with respect to the original tonic scale. The reason for its selection will become apparent when we consider the structure of the theme and the thrice-repeated tonal trajectory that it embodies.

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-11a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, II, mm. 1–8

The opening eight-bar phrase (Ex. 13-11a), while it cadences quite normally, has a somewhat bizarre middle. The fourth bar, which might be expected to contain a caesura (a brief point of rest or articulation), instead sounds a note of unexpected tension—an E-natural, identified by the succeeding notes as the leading tone in an applied dominant (V of vi). The tension is quickly (and “normally”) resolved in a circle of fifths, but the brief shock fixes the fourth measure’s errant harmony in the mind: a C major triad. Beethoven acknowledges the force of the shock by compensating for it with a fivefold embellished and then foreshortened repetition of the perfect cadence in mm. 6–8, reverberations that do not die down completely until m. 22.

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ex. 13-11b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, II, mm. 23–31

The two-bar phrase that begins with the upbeat to m. 23 (Ex. 13-11b) can be identified as an expansion of the three-note incipit, or opening motive, of the original theme. It is followed by a phrase (mm. 25–26 with pickup) that continues the same trajectory to the next tonic chord tone. But then once again the unexpected intervenes: yet another sequential continuation (mm. 26–27) moves not to another stable tone, but to a wildly unstable G♭, a chromatic tone that fundamentally threatens the identity of the tonic by turning it into the V of IV. Its instability is immediately reinforced by another chromatic tone, the A-natural in the second violin and viola that forms a diminished seventh against the intruder. The diminished seventh harmony is then repeated in the kind of suspenseful stall familiar from the ones encountered in the Eroica Symphony in the previous chapter.

And now the denouement. In m. 30 the A-natural falls back to A♭, the G♭ is respelled F♯, and the resulting augmented sixth, reinforced by a sudden orchestral tutti, fortissimo, resolves the only way it can—to the same C major triad that had briefly intruded in the first phrase of the theme; but this time it is immediately confirmed by a brilliantly fulfilling—that is, tonicizing—cadence. The sense of breakthrough, achieved by a great effort, is shattering. Durch Kampf nach Sieg!

The reason for the unconventional choice of A♭ as the tonic for the second movement is now clear. It was chosen strategically, to enable this sudden, surprising (and elating) breakthrough to the key that will eventually discharge the violent C-minor mood of the first movement. It offers a foretaste of the outcome we have by now learned to associate with Beethoven’s heroic narratives, the narratives that so decisively transformed the meaning of music for nineteenth-century audiences.

The horns, trumpets, and drums now exult in the brightness of the new key, blaring out in C major the same music that had been played piano and dolce (softly and sweetly) in mm. 22–26 by the clarinets and bassoons, and reminding us that—according to the same Galeazzi whose characterization of C minor so agreed with Beethoven’s practice—the key of C major is grandioso, militare. The foretaste of victory lasts for six blazing bars (mm. 32–38). Achieved by rupture, however, and prematurely, it is impermanent. The strings insinuate a soft but decisive destabilizing harmony in m. 39—another diminished seventh chord that resolves through another drawn-out suspense passage, a tortuously chromatic vagary that lasts fully nine bars (mm. 39–48) until it arrives at the dominant of the A♭ and the first double can begin.

It is in the course of that double that the mysterious references to the germinal motive (“ticking like a time bomb”) appear; and their appearances coincide exactly with the “suspense passages” that surround the second explosion of C major. Beethoven has contrived, in other words, to bring a reminder of the “C-minor mood” of the opening movement into direct conjunction with the foretaste of C-major victory. It is a moment fraught with multiple “introversive” resonances, as defined in chapter 10, resonances that connect both with what is past and with what still (potentially, or hopefully) lies ahead.

These are dramatists’ devices. Beethoven was not the first composer to apply them to instrumental music. We have observed similar gestures in the symphonies of Mozart and (particularly) Haydn. But by using them so much more pervasively than his predecessors, and so intensifying their effect, Beethoven seemed, to Hoffmann and his contemporaries, to have ushered in a new musical era—the era that Hoffmann so influentially dubbed romantic. Of paramount significance is the fact, emphasized by the prophetically discerning Hoffmann, that the technical achievement (organically unified form) and the expressive or dramaturgical achievement (creating a meaningfully related sequence of musically represented moods that plays overwhelmingly upon the listener’s nerves) are one and the same achievement, variously described.

To return to the narrative: the premature thrusts toward the light in the second movement are effectively (though not hopelessly) canceled by the coda, in which the augmented sixth chord that had so stunningly rerouted the harmony toward C major in the variations is neutralized by the soothing bassoon solo. The F♯ is respelled (or re-respelled) G♭, the chord is re-resolved as a V of IV, and the local tonic A♭, a weak secondary function with respect to the symphony’s once and future tonics, is temporarily reconfirmed. The trajectory of struggle and victory has its vacillations, its setbacks.

The scherzo, consequently, is dark—another C-minor mood, replete with a unison “announcing theme” and fermatas. The darkness is expressed both in the tone color (muttering cellos and basses, pianissimo) and in the harmony: the jarring cross-relation between the outer voices as the second fermata is approached. Amazingly enough in view of its seeming originality, this very spot (mm. 16–20) in Beethoven’s scherzo virtually reproduces a five-bar sequence from the last movement of Stamitz’s Orchestra Trio in C minor (op. 4, no. 3), one of the early symphonies investigated in chapter 10. The two little passages, which encompass not only the unusual cadence with a false relation but also the beginning of a contrasting idea, are laid out for comparison in Ex. 13-12.

Was it an old memory from Beethoven’s Bonn years, treacherously disguised as imagination, that resurfaced here in the form of an unwitting quotation from Stamitz, his grandfather’s counterpart at Mannheim? Or was it a deliberate “extroversive” allusion, the point of which we no longer get? Beethoven’s music, as we have already learned in our brief consideration of the Ninth Symphony (in the previous chapter), teems with riddles like these, as does most romantic symphonic music composed in its wake. The Fifth Symphony, perhaps even more than the Ninth, was a landmark of “coded utterance”—the use of obvious but tantalizingly unexplained signaling, both introversive and extroversive—in instrumental music. And the enigmatic complex comprising the symphony’s scherzo and finale is what chiefly made it so.

As Hoffmann has already alerted us, and as the most cursory glance at the score reveals, the two movements are joined like Siamese twins, their joining furnishing the means for not merely the juxtaposition of C minor and C major, but the direct transformation of the one into the other, through which the symphony’s “overarching single gesture” is consummated at last. The point is made with suitable drama—a lengthy dominant pedal to gather and focus tension, by way of molto crescendo and tremolos, not to mention the contrast between the nattering, muttering dissolve with which the scherzo comes to its inconclusive end, pianissimo, and the dazzling brassy blast that launches the finale on its triumphant course.

For early audiences, that blast was magnified far beyond its present power to shock by the unexpected sound of trombones in their symphonic debut. (Up to now we have encountered them only in church and in the opera pit, where they were employed for their religious—or, in Gluck’s Orfeo and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, their infernal—associations.) In the finale of the Fifth, they are accompanied by the contrabassoon and piccolo, both used until that very moment solely in military bands. Thus the “grand military” affect associated with C major by Galeazzi is once again invoked and quite literally reinforced. Unlike the Eroica, however, the Fifth is not generally thought to carry explicitly military associations. It is generally agreed that its military affect is metaphorical, symbolizing a triumph that is experienced (whether externally, with respect to the composer, or internally, by a sympathetically identifying listener) as personal.

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-12a Carl Stamitz, Trio, Op. 4, no. 3, IV, mm. 141–164

Germination and Growth

ex. 13-12b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 5, in C minor, Op. 67, III, mm. 1–20

But that is not the full extent of the interrelationship of scherzo and finale. It is no such simple contrast. There is also the reprise of the scherzo within the finale, at a point that could not be more disruptive: during the retransition, right before the recapitulation, where it seems to reintroduce C minor, most unwelcomely, right as the dominant is about to resolve for the last time to the tonic major. In a larger sense, of course, the scherzo reprise serves a strategic purpose, prolonging as it does the suspense of “dominant tension,” and enabling a replay of the transitional passage so as to launch the recapitulation with a blast comparable to the one that had launched the exposition. Triumph, it could be argued, is not compromised but actually enhanced by the overcoming of one last setback.

But that is only one possible argument, one possible rough verbal paraphrase of a specifically musical reality. We have here one of the very earliest instances of the sort of situation, at once fascinating and frustrating, that became increasingly the norm in the symphonic music of the nineteenth century—music that at once demands and thwarts paraphrase. As the pianist and critic Charles Rosen has characterized it, the dilemma is that for music in the post-Beethoven tradition, “metaphorical description is called for, and even necessary,” but “none will be satisfactory or definitive.”20

The dilemma, of course, is ours, not music’s. From the quintessentially romantic situation Rosen describes, music comes out the winner—as a medium transcending paraphrase and metaphor, and hence privy to a mode of expression that transcends what is fully expressible with blunt, all-too-human instruments like language and logic. Music all at once became a matter of intense interest (and envy) not only for artists in all media, but for philosophers as well. Different romantic philosophers have had different ways of getting at musical transcendence, though all agreed that it left phenomenal reality (that is, what can be apprehended through the senses alone) far behind and seemed to approach what Kant (following Plato) called the noumenal: the irreducible, ineffable essence of things, the reality that lay behind all appearance. Where other arts could only describe or reproduce appearances, music had access to the thing itself.

Beethoven, possibly reacting to Hoffmann’s critiques, had put it this way to a friend (who immediately quoted it in a letter to Goethe) as early as 1810: “I despise the world which does not intuitively feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”21 “Intuitively feel” rather than “understand,” because such knowledge can come only as revelation. Like religious faith, it is inaccessible and impervious to sense or reason. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) would later put it, where the other arts were confined to representing the world, music could actually present the underlying reality, or what Schopenhauer called the Will.

And, as Schopenhauer insisted, it did so in ways that even a composer could not fully explain. “The composer,” Schopenhauer wrote, “reveals the inner nature of the world and expresses the deepest wisdom in a language which his reason does not understand.”22 Beethoven was the first composer to be self-consciously aware of this great romantic truth and to act on that awareness.


(19) Richard Wagner, Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850), in Judaism in Music and Other Essays, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 96.

(20) Charles Rosen, Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 267.

(21) Bettina von Arnim to Goethe, 28 May 1810; in Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries, ed. O. G. Sonneck (New York: Schirmer, 1926), p. 80.

(22) Artur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Vol. I (New York: Dover, 1966), p. 260.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13003.xml