By the time Eugene Ormandy commissioned a new symphony from George Antheil in 1947, the self-proclaimed "Bad Boy of Music" had substantially tempered and refined the brash musical style that in the 1920s had driven audiences in Paris and New York to riot. As the 1930s approached, Antheil increasingly drew upon neoclassical principles; after embarking on a film music career in Hollywood during the 1930s, his style took on a distinctive turn toward neoromanticism and Americana.
The Symphony is in three movements. The first utilizes a broad palette of harmonic color; instead of piling chords layer upon layer in the polytonal manner of his earlier works, however, Antheil separates and juxtaposes multiple harmonic schemes to create linear variety. The second movement is surprisingly plaintive, rivaled only, perhaps, by the lush Largo of the String Quartet No. 3 as the most introspective music of Antheil's later years. The carnival atmosphere and playful orchestration of the third movement earn the Fifth Symphony its "Joyous" appellation.
The enthusiastic reception of the Fifth Symphony at home and abroad contrasted starkly with the uproar that had greeted such works as Ballet mécanique and Sonata Sauvage in the 1920s. Shortly after its critically acclaimed premiere in Philadelphia under Ormandy in 1948, the Symphony was broadcast on radio by the San Francisco Symphony; later, the work was received warmly in Paris, the city that had granted the composer his earliest succèsses des scandales.