Taking the Fifth: the CSO to perform iconic quinary symphonies this season

With its emphatic, instantly identifiable opening eight-note motif, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 stands out as one of the most iconic and frequently performed works in the orchestral repertoire. Indeed, it looms so large in this realm that it has inevitably cast a spotlight on other composers who have reached this same milestone and have written their own symphonies that carry number five. 

It so happens that four of these non-Beethoven Fifth symphonies — call them the “four Fives” — will be featured during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-23 Season, each led by a different conductor: 

Sept. 29-30, Oct. 1, Sergei Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5, Riccardo Muti, conductor. The tide of World War II was turning in favor of the Allies when Prokofiev wrote this symphony in the summer of 1944 at an artistic retreat outside Moscow. The composer led the premiere of this work, which he conceived as “glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit,” in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in January 1945, and it became an immediate international success.

Nov. 3-5, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5, Edward Gardner, conductor. Considering that Gardner is British, it is not surprising that he would end this program with a work by one of his countrymen. Like Beethoven, Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies, and this one, finished a year before Prokofiev’s No. 5, is a serene work, a kind of tonic for all the wartime violence happening at the time of its creation. Many of its themes derive from an opera, Pilgrim’s Progress, that the composer was working on at the time.

Nov. 17-20, Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, Manfred Honeck, conductor. Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, and this one is arguably the best known and most performed. Composed in 1937, the work was important in his career, because its triumphant success put him back in the good graces of Soviet authorities after his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced a year earlier, threatening his career and even his life. The symphony quotes from the composer’s song setting of an Alexander Pushkin poem that fittingly deals with rebirth. 

Feb. 16-18, Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Klaus Mäkelä, conductor. Mahler wrote nine symphonies and a 10th that was unfinished at his death, and they rank among the most highly regarded works in the form. By far the earliest of the works on this list, this sweeping symphony was written in 1901-02 and lasts more than hour. Among its striking features is an opening trumpet solo that echoes the rhythmic beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony in 1808 when he was 38 years old. The work is generally considered to be part of his middle period, which also includes the Triple Concerto and Waldstein Sonata, as well as his last two piano concertos and five string quartets.

Of these four composers, Mahler was closest to Beethoven’s age, 41-42, when he wrote his Symphony No. 5, which like Beethoven’s falls right in the middle of his production of symphonies. But Mahler would have a little less than 10 years to go before his death, while Beethoven did not die for nearly two decades after completing his Fifth Symphony.  

At 30, Shostakovich was the youngest of these four composers when he wrote his Symphony No. 5, but it, too, can be seen as something of a middle-period creation, a pivotal work that rehabilitated his reputation in the Soviet Union and launched the second part of his career.

Prokofiev was 53 and less than nine years away from his death when he produced his Fifth Symphony, and Vaughan Williams was even older, 71, when his premiered. Indeed, some people even considered this creation as the British composer’s valedictory work in the form, but he went on write four more symphonies, completing the last in 1957, a year before his death.  

While the “four Fives” that the CSO is featuring in 2022-23 are never likely to attain the same fame or mystique of Beethoven’s singular work with that number, they are all nonetheless unquestionably major works. And all but Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, which remains something of an outlier in the United States, are regularly performed.