Symphony No. 1 in C Major, op. 21

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        When Beethoven began work on his first symphony he had been a resident of Vienna for seven years, and was enjoying a growing reputation as a composer. He had already composed the first ten sonatas for piano, including the Pathétique. Other important completed works were the first two piano concertos and some of the op. 18 string quartets. His instrumental ensemble works included the wind Octet in Eb and the Septet in Eb for winds and strings, but no symphonies. Haydn had returned in triumph from London in 1795 from his second trip to that city, flush with the success of his second set of six symphonies of the “London” symphonies. Collectively these twelve symphonies by Haydn constitute the last word in defining classical style in the genre (Mozart had died four years earlier). These masterpieces evidently stimulated Beethoven to work on his own first essay in the genre, but after much work, it was abandoned. It took three years, but Beethoven finally decided to begin anew, starting work in a new and different effort in 1799. It was completed in 1800, and given its première in April of that year. Beethoven was an artist who stood astride the transition from the classic to the romantic period, and it is understandable that his first attempts would be somewhat derivative. And this symphony is clearly the successor to the model of Haydn. The great scholar, Donald Tovey, characterized Beethoven’s first essay in the genre as a “farewell to the eighteenth century.” That, it clearly is, for although it certainly bears the mark of Beethoven, it has little of the monumentality first heard in the third symphony, for example. It is a light-hearted work, and carries some subtle examples of Beethoven’s sense of humor. On the other hand, although Haydn may have been peering over Beethoven’s shoulder, Beethoven pushed ahead in his progressive traits. His harmonic adventuresomeness is present from the very first chord, and is salted throughout the work. The scoring for winds is so pervasive—a trait that became much more common later—that an early critic complained that the symphony sounded more like band music than orchestral. Beethoven’s well-known proclivity for really “working through” his material is right here. In many ways the mature Beethoven lurks beneath the surface of this first symphony in its subtle details, notwithstanding its general similarity to the style of the two earlier giants of the period.

        There’s been a lot of spilt ink over the startling first few chords of the slow introduction to the first movement. All that really matters is that Beethoven delighted in starting the work with a short little deception as to the real key, and it should delight us, as well. The mood is eloquent, noble—all the things that we hear right through the last symphony. The faster, main movement soon starts with a bustling simple motif, soon followed by the woodwinds taking the second theme, a smooth descending idea. This is a short exposition, and an important bass line under the oboe soon heralds its end. After the repeat, Beethoven does what he does so well, working creatively with these three ideas, but this too, doesn’t last long, and a recap with a significant coda (another solid characteristic of the Beethoven to come) tops it off.

        The second movement “walks” along graciously with a rather coy theme—beginning somewhat like a little fugue—that is soon followed by another one. Light timpani strokes take us to the end of the section. After the repeat, Beethoven briefly explores a few darker moments in a throbbing rhythm, and then we’re back home with the opening material, suitably varied with moving accompaniment. After recapitulating the ground of the opening section, the movement—featuring the winds--gradually fades away in the best Beethoven manner.

        Remember, Haydn was still alive and kicking at this time, so the third movement, Beethoven calls a “minuet,” in the traditional way. But, it really is a quite vibrant scherzo in the manner for which the composer soon began famous—some may even hear intimations of the scherzo of Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” here. The short first section, ends with some of the composer’s well-known rhythmic displacements that add to the drive forward. The middle section—always a nice contrast—traditionally features the winds, and they glide along smoothly, with rippling strings beneath. This too, doesn't last long, and a repeat of the first section ensues.

        The beginning of the last movement is nothing if not wry. A loud chord is followed by three soft little notes, which grow into a lengthening scale with each repetition. After seven bars of this quiet teasing, the scale zips up into the main theme, a simple little idea. As a matter of fact, the whole movement is built around easy to recognize short ideas, all crafted into a unified whole that reminds us again of the craftsmanship of a composer who was a master of “economy of means.” Beethoven always averred that he didn’t learn anything from the few composition lessons that he had from Haydn. That may be, but it is manifestly clear that the younger man had listened and learned enormously from the music of his elder in this charming, vivacious romp of a last movement.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan