Symphony No 1

in C-Major, Op. 21, Ludwig Van Beethoven

Beethoven grew up knowing and hearing the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn.  When he was born, Mozart was busy writing his Salzburg symphonies. When he was a teenager, Mozart was writing his extraordinary late symphonies. Haydn had many years before he honed his symphonic skills. In 1770, Haydn already had 49 symphonies under his belt and was on his way to write 106 (if one includes the Hoboken categorization). In 1795, when Beethoven began to sketch a symphony, Haydn produced the Drumroll and London symphonies: numbers 103 and 104.

It is not surprising that Beethoven’s First Symphony did not appear until 1800. The success of the two classical masters was very likely intimidating. It is also not surprising that his First Symphony bore many of the hallmarks of classical style he had studied with both Haydn (unsuccessfully, as they did not get along) and Mozart (although the latter is not fully documented).  Furthermore, it is surprising that with his debut into the symphonic genre, he was hailed as their successor and a voice of the future. That newness emerged in the very first measures of Opus 21.  It was not a full-fledged echo of poise and obedience to classical values.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 premiered on April 2, 1800 at the Burgtheater in Vienna (there were no concert halls at that time), which the composer had rented for a concert to promote his own music.  The Allegemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported  “this was the most interesting concert in a very long time.” Ironically, just as he was entering a successful phase in his compositions, he was given the bad news that his hearing problem was incurable. By 1802, in the Heiligenstadt Testament he was even considering suicide. His commitment to the art of music and his place therein saved him from himself.

The first movement, marked Adagio molto-Allegro con brio, begins with a twelve-measure introduction; in place of the classical style introduction, Beethoven opens with a series of chords coming from winds and horns with pizzicato accompaniment from strings. The first iteration is dominant-tonic movement in F major. The second touches on C, but the last moves strongly into G major. What this means is that the composer is breaking new ground, and shying away, misleading us, from the home key of C major. One critic mentioned “such a beginning is not suitable for the opening of a grand concert in a spacious opera house” (Christopher Gibbs: Program notes, Philadelphia Orchestra, 2006). Additionally unusual are the dynamic markings of fp (a sudden loud to soft) in each measure. At the Allegro con brio marking, Beethoven finally assures the C major tonality with a soft introduction of the first theme presented by violins. Herein is the beginning of the corpus of the work.  The second more lyrical theme is introduced by oboe in conversation with the flute. From this point forward, the music behaves in classical direction and format, but with more dynamic contrasts and harmonic colorations than usual. The development is concise, focusing on the first theme, and the recap expands the initial ideas.

The second movement, Andante cantabile con moto, provides a simple theme, which is the subject of the entire movement. Hushed trumpets and drums add delicate coloration.

Beethoven titles his third movement Menuetto (an older form of minuet). It is a far cry from the anticipated courtly stately dance. This music rushes headlong into a sprightly scherzo-type affair: animated, energetic, and relentless. “Although the DNA of Beethoven’s First Symphony was classical there were definite mutations. Especially in the scherzo. Although marked as a menuetto the music was not mejestic, poised or dance like. It was fast, marked molto and vivace to encourage a brisk pace. Beethoven ‘s metronome markings for allegro usually spanned 80 to 96. And with the modifiers the composer was wanting more zest. Overall this movement was a fitting goodbye to the eighteenth century” (Maynard Solomon).The graceful trio offers relaxation and serenity before the energy re-ignites until the finish.

Like the first movement, Beethoven teases us with a slow beginning before lifting the curtain on an exciting Allegro molto e vivace.  Opus 21 concludes in high spirits featuring violin flurries in rapidly moving notes starting softly and scaling the heights into louder dynamics, the so-called Mannheim rocket. The Mannheim school (mid-18th century) created several orchestral innovations, which were dramatic, exciting, thrillers and novel for their time. The “rocket” is indeed like fireworks, and Beethoven launches a lot of them in this movement. Listen for the changes in tempi, as if gathering breath before dashing onward. Another Mannheim novelty is also present: the General Pause, sudden cessation of all sound and then almost immediate re-entry into high-octane movement.

The last performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major was in October 2005, conducted by Christoph Poppen.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

See all Program Notes

Program Notes