Early in his career, Beethoven shied away from Joseph Haydn’s two signature genres: the symphony and the string quartet. Beethoven finally wrote his first quartets, a set of six grouped as Opus 18, between 1798 and 1800. As for symphonies, Beethoven made an attempt in 1795-96 (after hearing Haydn’s London symphonies), but he did not complete one until 1800. The work had its first performance on April 2 on Beethoven’s first benefit concert at the Burgtheater, the same venue where Mozart had presented his own popular concert series. Besides the First Symphony, Beethoven offered his Septet (Opus 20), a Mozart symphony, excerpts from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piano concerto, and some improvisations from the keyboard.
Beethoven’s First Symphony honors the Viennese tradition of Haydn and Mozart, and yet it also contains a germ of independence. The most striking departure comes in the very first sonority, an unstable chord that resolves away from the home key. It cycles back to the proper tonal center of C major only after a drawn-out, tantalizing introduction. When the main theme enters in the new Allegro con brio tempo, it plays with a figure that repeatedly confirms the proper home key, its rise (which spans the interval of a perfect fourth, from G to C) answering the opening move that traveled the same harmonic distance (from C to F, also a perfect fourth).
In a sign of the interconnectivity that distinguishes all of Beethoven’s symphonies, the second movement starts with the same ascending interval of a perfect fourth—once again C to F—which in this case ushers in the new keynote. A distinguishing characteristic of this slow movement is its rich and independent writing for winds, with a scoring that includes trumpets and timpani.
The third movement, though labeled a minuet, is closer in spirit to the wild scherzos of the later symphonies. The contrasting trio section reveals Beethoven’s sense of humor, with scampering runs in the strings popping up between chorale phrases in the woodwinds. The finale brings this fledgling symphony full circle, with a slow introduction setting up a tonal resolution that solves the riddle posed by the symphony’s opening chords. The violins test an ascending scale, adding a note at a time; when they reach the top of the octave, they launch a bright and hearty valediction.
Aaron Grad ©2014