Mozart: "Oh, Papa, you have no education for the wide world, and you speak so few languages"
Haydn: "But my language is understood all over the world."
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is a pretty generic choice for the favourite work of all time especially considering the opening motif to be the most famous line in concert music history. However just because it's a typical boring predictable choice doesn't mean it's wrong and I'll explain why out of every piece of music I've heard this is my personal number 1. Even though I have barely scratched the surface of the huge world of concert music, I seriously doubt I would ever hear a work that will eclipse it as I simply can't conceive how it's possible for a work to eclipse it.
I'm not going to do a musicologist music theory analysis as I'm simply not knowledgeable enough or qualified for it but I believe the strength of this work goes beyond the intelligence of well organised notes on the scores. To me the whole debate about absolute music vs programmatic music is answered by this symphony and the whole validity of music as a genre of the arts itself is answered by this symphony better than any other work I have heard so far.
First I'll describe the type of imagery this symphony elicits in me personally and I have put timecode which align the described section with the video link. (0:07) The opening motif aka the famous "fate motif" and that description is perfectly apt (even if it wasn't assign by Beethoven himself). To me it represents the feeling when someone broke bad news, such as you've been diagnosed of a terminal illness, your family member has died, or you found out your deafness is incurable. In the end it doesn't matter what specific event it is but the general universal human principles that a traumatic event has occured in your life. The whole sequencing and transformation of the "fate motif" represents the immediate impact of hearing the bad news where your entire mindset is dominated by that event. No matter what you do, where you look, you can't stop thinking about this tragedy and it completely dominates your life at this point of time as that motif pops up everywhere in the first theme. The entire first theme of the movement just exudes extreme despair at the situation.
The horn call (0:50) signals the second more lyric and beautiful theme appears and it ends in a seemingly triumphant C major key. This to me represents the person in denial and fantasising the problem away and pretending it doesn't exist and everything is ok. However no matter how much you wished the problem goes away, fate comes knocking at the door as the fate motif of theme one returns back to C minor. In the end everyone has to face the current reality of the situation.
The development section (2:50) has the horn call theme which represented hopeful denial being fragmented and torn apart leaving just a single soft chord beating (3:47) (symbolising the individual beating heart) but barely alive. This development section symbolises hope being torn apart and the protagonist feeling isolated (as shown by the single soft chord beating) leaving the person contemplating suicide before snapping out of that moment (4:00). This leads to the recapitulation (4:15) where the minor key fate motif is more subdue that represent sad reflection rather than the angst at the beginning of the movement and the section end in a more optimistic major key (5:23) that represents the protagonist rescuing themselves from the edge of suicidal despair.
However the darkness returns in the coda (5:38) which I also serves as a second development section and I can hear (even with no words) during the match-like climax of the coda (6:05) of the protagonist saying 'it's not fair" and raging in anger at the events that surround their lives as the movement ends in a very dark note. The protagonist may well be alive but the person mind is in a dark place.
The second slow movement (7:00) represents behavioural activation as the protagonist picking up the pieces from the first movement. The essential day to day activities has to be attended to and life doesn't stop for any tragedy that any individual faces. The slow beginning to me represents the protagonist going through the motions of daily activities. However as the movement goes on, each variations of the themes (such as 8:12) are presented more heroically and more trumphantly. This isn't a victory over the darkness in their mind (which will occur later in this symphony) but rather a defiant I'm enduring and surviving despite the problems in my life. The act of enduring and pushing through and maintaining daily activity is therapeutic in of itself as shown by how the C Major second theme of the variation plays the role of hope (as it does in every movement) returning, this hope itself re-energises the first theme in subsequent variations where it is portrayed more energetic. The constant soft minor key melancholy shifts in between the triumphant themes (example 8:28) as well as the rhythmic call back to the "fate motif" (9:49) by the viola represents that the darkness is still very much there but it hasn't defeated the person.
The third movement "scherzo" (15:54) is the famous confrontation between light and dark or "C Major" and "C Minor". The bombastic "A" theme (16:12) with the rhythmic "fate motif' by the horns represents the imposing depression that dominates the mind of the protagonist that threatens to overwhelm the listener (and hence the protagonist). However the "B" the contrasting C Major theme (17:36) responds with humour and life. What defeats the internal forces of darkness was the ability to look at the problems facing in your life and laugh at it. It's really an example of cognitive restructuring where by viewing the same problems via a different lens and thought process, the problems no longer seems so big. In a way the message of this symphony is laughter/humour is the best medicine and an example of how Beethoven uses humour as a coping strategy and used that to challenge his negative thoughts. So when the "A" theme returns (18:53) it's a shadow of its former self as the protagonist no longer put fuel on his negative thoughts as shown by the theme is played softly with pizzicato strings which represents the impending defeat of the depression of the protagonist life.
The depression in the mind is defeated by the joys of life that transitions to the celebratory final movement where it's pure emotional ecstasy (20:30). C Major has triumph over C Minor. The movement documents the defeat of depression as man heroic triumph over adversity. The rhythmic pattern of the fate motif returns (21:38) with the horns but instead of being used to represent despair it represents triumph as not only did the protagonist endured and survive the traumatic event but that event built character and became a stronger person due to prevailing over adversity which matched how Beethoven composing flourish due to his personal battles over his fluctuating deafness. There is also a moment of nuance as there is a transition to the minor key in the modulating bridge (23:00) that leads back to the dark C Minor "A" theme from the scherzo made a brief return in the final movement (24:00). This represents that the underlying trauma and damage is still there and will always be there for the rest of the person life and there is always a risk of return or relapse back in the darkness. After all whatever traumatic event happened in the first movement (terminal illness, death in the family, chronic illness etc) is still there but it's not going to defeat the person mentally as the triumphant C Major return (24:33) movement wipes away the darkness.
Beethoven's 5th symphony is an inspirational tale of how a person can triumph over adversity. However what made this the ultimate quintessential piece of western music is that it told this story purely from the music without having to say a single word. I find this symphony as the most direct example of communication purely by music without words in western music. Now what I've written previously may be my own personal interpretation of the symphony however plenty of people out there have very similar interpretations of what I mention and that was derived purely from the music.
If someone asked to justify the validity of music as a genre of the arts. Beethoven Symphony No. 5 to me is the best example of this because it shows how music is a form of universal language of emotions that is able to communicate with people that words can't adequately portray. Sure Beethoven could say in words that he felt depressed after finding out his hearing loss is incurable but if he was alive today and told me that i wouldn't be able to understand because I can't speak German (despite doing German lessons up to Year 10). There is a language and cultural barriers that prevent verbal communication between two people.
However listening to this Symphony not only do I understand what he was feeling, I felt the same emotions along with him. If someone told the person how they feel, they may be able to understand how they feel in an abstract sense and they can only feel what other people feel by using their imaginations and putting themselves in other peoples shoes. Music directly transports you into the other person shoes. As the quote from Gary Oldman portrayal of Beethoven in the film "Immortal Beloved" "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice." This type of communication crosses cultural barriers as even someone from let say Asia (judging by the popularity of Beethoven in Japan due to the annual New Years Ode To Joy) could understand the music and the message. I feel that Beethoven understood more than most that music is the "language understood all over the world" than any other composer.
Now there are plenty of examples of elaborate programmatic music that tells a story such as the brilliant Hector Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique" where it's instrumental narrative goes beyond even what Beethoven was trying to do. However can anyone derived the plot purely from listening to the music without referring to the program notes? I really don't think so and I believe that only by reading the program notes that describe the plot of the symphony does the message of the music and it's cleverness reveals itself. This is the reason why I rate Beethoven symphonies higher because the message from the symphony is derived purely by the music. Hell this is the reason why I rate Beethoven Symphony No. 5 higher than No. 9 (which is my second favourite piece of all time) as even though Symphony No. 9 is brilliant, it requires words to make sense of the last movement as I don't believe the utopian message could be derived from the music without lyrics. Due to that it lacks the music purity of Symphony No. 5. Ironically Symphony No. 5 is probably more universal and more inclusive than Symphony No. 9 due to that. The message of a person struggling and overcoming adversity in their life is probably more universal theme than a utopian all men are brothers which although I agree with that message, certainly there are plenty of people who don't agree with that message.
Beethoven resolved the programmatic vs absolute music debate that was popular in the romantic era even before it even started. Symphony No. 5 is absolute music that tells a story. It has the drama as any programmatic music and represents extramusical concept without any program notes or vocal text. This is music that transcend the whole debate.
Now I'm first to admit that I'm not familiar with the massive repertoire of concert music to make definitive statements about what is the greatest work of all time. However I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can topped that work but I'm open to suggestions. Can anyone tell me a piece of work that is able to communicate an emotional journey purely by the music as good as what Beethoven achieved in Symphony No. 5?