A guide to Beethoven's Symphony No. 1

We explore the great composer's First Symphony and what makes it so special

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A guide to Beethoven's Symphony No. 1
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Premiere:
KK Hoftheater nächst der Burg, Vienna, 2 April 1800

After permanently settling in Vienna in 1792 at the age of 22, Beethoven set about mastering an impressive range of musical genres. In the following years, he completed a substantial body of chamber music (piano trios and string trios and works for wind instruments), duo and solo piano sonatas and a piano concerto (No. 1 in C major). Missing from this work list, however, were either symphonies or string quartets. The highly self-critical composer was evidently reluctant to tackle either medium until he felt fully equipped to write something that could match the achievement of his great forebears, Mozart and Haydn.

In fact, Beethoven had made an abortive attempt to write a symphony between 1796 and ’97, but the work was only completed two years later. It was unveiled for the first time before the Viennese public at a concert on 2 April, 1800 and published the following year. The First Symphony bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of the most vociferous supporters of Beethoven at the time and the librettist of Haydn’s oratorios The Creation and The Seasons.

 

 

Structure and tonality:

As befitting a work composed at the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven’s First pays homage to the great Viennese classical tradition, but also offers tantalising anticipations of his innovative symphonic writing in the next decade. The retrospective elements are most obviously manifested in the close thematic relationship that exists between this Symphony in the ‘festive’ key of C major and previous works bearing the same tonality, most notably Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41).

The First also follows a similar structural outline to the late Haydn symphonies, even though Beethoven places more emotional weight on the finale. Perhaps most notably, Beethoven designates the third movement as a minuet, but his recommended tempo marking of Allegro molto e vivace suggests that it is in essence the first of his dynamic symphonic scherzos.

 


Beethoven's First Symphony, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle

 

Instrumentation:

The orchestra Beethoven uses in the First Symphony (double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings) is no different in size to that employed by Haydn. Yet his orchestration is radically different, as immediately evidenced in the brief slow introduction to the work. Many commentators highlight the provocative nature of Beethoven’s musical argument here, particularly its opening of a dominant seventh chord resolving to the ‘wrong’ key of F major. But no less striking is the unprecedented textural effect of combining pizzicato strings with sustained woodwind chords.

Indeed, throughout the First, Beethoven creates a different orchestral balance than his predecessors, giving the wind instruments far greater parity with the strings. A reviewer present at the first performance of the work took great exception to this tendency, claiming that Beethoven was writing something that was more appropriate for a wind-band than for a symphony orchestra. It was a complaint that Beethoven totally ignored in his subsequent symphonies.

 

 

Recommended recording:

Following in the footsteps of Toscanini, Riccardo Chailly delivers a characteristically high-voltage account of the First Symphony, perfectly capturing its moments of brusque humour with superbly incisive sforzando accents from his Leipzig players, yet allowing sufficient space for the graceful aspects of the second movement to come to the fore.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 478 3493

 

 

Words by Erik Levi. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

 

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