The Sublime:

Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)

Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst discusses what he hopes people will get from Beethoven’s music, leading into a series of archival clips of the Orchestra throughout its history performing the symphony.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is so familiar to us now that it might be difficult to imagine it as shocking or difficult. Its now iconic opening four notes have been used for Allied broadcasts to symbolize victory, and, more recently, were adapted as a disco song. It’s a staple of Orchestra concerts throughout the world, a reliable crowd pleaser. While the permeation of Beethoven’s fifth is not in itself bad, something can be lost through casual familiarity. We are far from 1812, when reviews of the symphony described it as “a stream of glowing fire.”1 However, as Franz says in the video, “Great art is not there just to be pleasant.” If we want to revitalize our appreciation of the Fifth, consider approaching the work through a lens more apropos to its time: that of the sublime.

“Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism.”2
E.T.A. Hoffmann, Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, 1810.
Beethoven slumped over a desk, and having fevered and unsettling visions.
Engraving by Aimé François Joseph Lemud, 1864

E.T.A. Hoffmann, the great early-romantic German poet, author, and philosopher, profoundly influenced the ways about which people perceived Beethoven’s music. Hoffmann, influenced by other philosophers such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Schiller, and Jean Paul Richter, interpreted Beethoven’s music as an expression of the sublime. The sublime is purposefully difficult to define: It attempts to comprehend something obscure and undefinable. Consequently, many philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Schiller, and Jean Paul Richter, ascribed to the sublime powerful emotions such as fear, awe, and pain. This was in contrast to the idea of the beautiful: something real, concrete, and pleasing.3 Franz touches upon this when he says “Great art is not just there to be pleasant.” He draws attention to the idea of great art forcing us out of our comfort zones to contemplate something difficult.

Beethoven at his desk, looking morosely forward as an unearthly chorus appears to sing to him.
Postcard by Hans Temple, 1919 or earlier.

The sublime was valued by thinkers such as Schiller for its “potential…to elevate the human spirit.”4 This ties strongly into Beethoven’s promethean ideas about art. In a letter dating from 1812, written to a young pianist, Beethoven advocated for a deeper engagement with art that resembles the sublime: “Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort. For only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.”5

To listen today to the Fifth Symphony as a sublime work, we have to not just listen, but immerse ourselves in the sonic world that Beethoven has composed. There is nothing wrong with casual listening, but the deeper we engage with the work and its mysteries, the more we can learn about it, ourselves, and the world. Great art demands a constant renewal of attention and approach; as Franz has described elsewhere in the interview, a major motivation in performing a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies for the Prometheus project was that Beethoven’s music contains so much to say, and that a new, philosophical approach could help audience members and performers alike say, to paraphrase Franz’s words, “Wow, there was a message there for me.”

All images courtesy of the Goethezeitportal

1 Editorial review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the Allegemeine musikalische Zeitung, June 3, 1812. In The Critical Reception of Beethoven’s Compositions by His German Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Wayne M. Senner, Robin Wallace, and William Rhea Meredith (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 57.

2 E.T.A. Hoffmann, review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Allegemeine musikalische Zeitung (Leipzig), 1810, trans. Martyn Clarke. In David Charlton, ed., E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 98.

3 Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 45-46.

4 Bonds, Music as Thought, 47.

5 As found and discussed in Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 9.

Alexander Lawler

Alexander Lawler is a Historical Musicology PhD student at Case Western Reserve University. This is his third year working in the Orchestra’s Archives, having previously written “From the Archives” online essays (2015-2016) and designed a photo digitization and metadata project (2016-2017).

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