Is 5 the greatest number for classical symphonies ?


Here’s a question that has been bugging me for a bit – is the number 5 (or a multiple thereof) a magic number when it comes to the great symphonies of classical music ? I’m happy to be proved absolutely wrong but hear me out for a moment:

–Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 – Da-Da-Da-Dum ! Da-Da-Da-Dum ! We all know the opening bars somehow whether we actually have heard the entire piece or not. Some might argue for the Eroica (3rd) or the Choral (9th). But if we ask most non-aficionados to determine what makes Beethoven great, it must be the 5th symphony. For my part, I must agree. When learning it, the recording / performance that most struck me was Karajan’s BPO recording in the 1961 / 2 series. His 1970s re-recordings are good but somehow do exert the same instant energy of the 60s’ tapes.

Arguably the same applies for the “Emperor” concerto (yes, the 5th). The 1st and 2nd are merely extensions of the Mozartean model, the 3rd is really when you start to hear a change in approach, the 4th is novel, all prior to the 5th had publishing issues (in terms of numeration) and the 5th is distinct in each and every way.

–Brahms: Symphony No.1 – yes, I know, 1 is not a multiple of 5 but remember that Hans von Bulow nicknamed it “Beethoven’s Tenth”. So there !

–Mozart: Most definitely. His 25th (g minor – K. 183) 35th (K 385 – the “Haffner”) and 40th (K. 550 – as it happens !) symphonies all qualify.

–Sibelius: Could it be otherwise with the 5th Symphony, a commission for his 50th birthday and composed in 1915 ? The only argument that might militate against this are the six chords that end the symphony. Still, there are five sections to each movement !

–Shostakovich: Again, perhaps the best known of the 15 but perhaps the most ironic ? Of course, I refer to the Finale (4th movement). Surely not “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” unless you took it with massive pinch of salt. Victory hymn or parody ? How fast are the last pages and bars containing the apparently triumphal passages to be played ?

–Tchaikovsky: Yes, the Pathetique (6th) is a great work but isn’t the 5th more so ? Wisely ignoring the philistinical reaction to its premiere (which should have evoked Disraeli’s comments about having to listen to him in due course and Beethoven’s comments about his later quartets being for another age), there is something fascinating about it. Complexity interweaves with simplicity and rewards repeated listening to it.

My knowledge of the Haydn symphonies is shoddy – partly because I refuse to listen to them ! And while I think the same theory applies to Mahler, I see no reason to comment on music which requires a course of anti-depressants and stimulants to listen to.

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About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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