It seems fitting that Beethoven composed his First Symphony at the dawn of a new century, 1799-1800, for even contemporaries realized that his symphonies changed the conception of the genre. Beethoven’s orchestral legacy cast an imposing shadow that composers had to deal with in various ways for the remainder of the century-and beyond. Brahms long delayed writing his First Symphony and when he did it was immediately labeled "Beethoven's Tenth." (Brahms's debts and allusions to Beethoven are evident throughout that work.) Some composers avoided writing symphonies entirely, or called them by other names. In some respects, Wagner, who never wrote a mature symphony, transferred Beethoven’s compositional devises to his massively orchestrated and symphonically conceived operas.
An Emerging Master
But it took even Beethoven some time to become BEETHOVEN, symphonic master and role model. The idea of dividing his career into three stages began during his lifetime and has never been abandoned. The First Symphony dates, of course, from his early, "Classical" era. More precisely, it comes from late in his first period, just a year or two before the personal crisis brought about by Beethoven’s gradual loss of hearing that is so powerfully reflected in the "Heiligenstadt Testament" and the "Eroica" Symphony.
By the mid-1790s, Beethoven had essayed most of the important instrumental genres, but had held off tackling the symphony and string quartet, perhaps because these were the kinds of pieces in which his teacher Haydn had made his greatest mark and enjoyed his most significant successes. When he did finally write, perform, and publish his first two symphonies and his set of six string quartets, Op. 18, he had reached full artistic maturity. These works represent Beethoven at the height of his Classical powers, building on the achievements of Haydn and Mozart while not hiding his debt to them.
What did Beethoven's contemporaries make of the 29-year-old composer's Grande Simphonie when it was first performed in April 1800 and published the following year? They listened to the work with fresh ears, knowing their Haydn and Mozart, but happily oblivious to how Beethoven would transform the genre within just a few years. They used the word "masterpiece" repeatedly and praised the work's "originality." After holding off writing a symphony for years, Beethoven had achieved his goal of a place alongside his most illustrious predecessors. A Viennese critic, writing in 1806, declared just that: The First Symphony is "a masterpiece that does equal honor to [Beethoven's] inventiveness and his musical knowledge. Being just as beautiful and distinguished in its design as its execution, there prevails in it such a clear and lucid order, such a flow of the most pleasant melodies, and such a rich, but at the same time never wearisome, instrumentation that this symphony can justly be placed next to Mozart's and Haydn's."
A Closer Look
The opening Adagio molto seems to begin in the wrong tonality, with a dominant chord resolving to the subdominant key. A critic at the time remarked: "No one will censure an ingenious artist like Beethoven for such liberties and peculiarities, but such a beginning is not suitable for the opening of a grand concert in a spacious opera house." In other words, the actual sound is not so strange, but the context, at the beginning of a grand symphony, is unexpected and jarring. Today we find it wonderful. The vibrant Allegro con brio that follows is filled with playful energy.
The second movement (Andante cantabile con moto) begins with the second violins presenting a courtly theme that is taken up fugally by other instruments; this theme alternates with a more light-hearted melody. Beethoven generally favored fast scherzos rather than the older minuet and trio for the "dance" movement of his symphonies, and here, although marked Menuetto (Allegro molto e vivace), the spirit and fast tempo preclude polite dancing and make it a scherzo in all but name.
Unusually, the final movement also begins with an Adagio that mischievously leads to an Allegro molto e vivace. This opening finds Beethoven at his most playful: After a loud chord intoned by the full orchestra, the first violins slowly work their way up the notes of the scale, first three notes, then four, five, six, and seven, eventually tipping over into the energetic octave scale that initiates the fast tempo sustained for the rest of the movement. No wonder Beethoven's audiences were delighted, as they have been ever since.
Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.