Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 4: Allegro – Presto
One aspect of the symphony that struck Hoffmann forcibly was its inner unity. Even a listener coming to the work for the first time will immediately connect the ‘knocking’ rhythmic figure which runs through the scherzo with the four-note motif of the symphony’s opening bars. The first movement itself is a locus classicus of symphonic unity, with the omnipresent ‘fate’ rhythm acting as an accompaniment to the warmly lyrical second subject. The mood changes again in the recapitulation, where the oboe breaks in to the opening subject with a miniature cadenza of great expressive depth. The oboe’s melody is actually a variant of the bars that precede it, but the contrast is overwhelming.
Behind the slow movement lies the shadow of the double variation design so assiduously cultivated by Haydn, in which two themes—one in the major, the other in the minor—are varied alternately. Beethoven’s design is abridged, with the second theme consisting of little more than a short-lived blaze of C major—as though in anticipation of the ultimate triumph of that key embodied in the symphony’s finale; and following the third variation the C major idea disappears altogether, leaving the remainder of the canvas to be filled with an elaboration of the first theme.
Beethoven had originally intended to have two statements each of the scherzo and trio, followed by the pianissimo da capo, but a last-moment change of heart led him to delete the long repeat of scherzo and trio. He may have feared that the extended form would weaken the symphony’s most revolutionary idea—the interruption of the finale with a further reprise of the scherzo. The change of colour for the return of the scherzo following the trio, with braying horns replaced by delicate pizzicatos, and the atmosphere of hushed mystery maintained throughout, is an astonishingly original stroke. Towards the end, the inner strings sustain a long-held note while the timpani gently tap out a rhythmic figure, before a crescendo of tremendous force propels the music forwards into the finale.
The finale’s emergence out of the shadowy scherzo—and with it the first use in a symphony by a great composer of trombones and piccolo—is a shattering moment, and one whose effect can scarcely be blunted by familiarity. The progress from darkness to light is renewed at the end of the finale’s powerful development section, with the reprise of the scherzo. This time the ensuing C major triumph has perforce to be even more assertive, and it is largely this that necessitates a Presto coda ending with more than fifty fortissimo bars of pure C major—a glorious victory for the forces of light.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2007