Symphony No. 1 in C major, op. 21
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
I. Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
II. Andante cantabile con moto
IV. Adagio - Allegro molto e vivace
First performance: 2 April 1800, Burgtheater, Vienna.
Notes by Katherine Baber
Like Brahms, we tend to view Beethoven as the standard by which other composers and their symphonic works are measured. However, there is an origin story to every godlike figure—when Beethoven sat down to write his First Symphony there was already a Viennese classic tradition to which he was compared. The symphony bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a patron he shared with Haydn and Mozart, whose symphonies had transformed the genre from an amorphous, sometimes trivial piece into one of the central features of European concert programs. In the face of Haydn’s incredibly popular “London” Symphonies and Mozart’s landmark “Jupiter” Symphony, Beethoven opened his symphonic career with what has been called “a farewell to the eighteenth century,” as if to clear the air and make room for his own voice.
Generations of critics and scholars have searched diligently for hints of the maverick to come—the Beethoven of the Third Symphony or the Fifth—and in doing so they overlook much of what is quite normal for the mid-eighteenth century. Searching for the Beethoven of the future, what we actually find is Beethoven in his own present.
The first movement takes the expected sonata form, with a slow introduction not much different than many similar openings by Haydn. Even the harmonic ambiguity of the opening chords, which do not begin in the tonic of C major, is not unusual, given other off-tonic introductions in a few of Haydn’s more recent symphonies. There is also an attention to detail—the pizzicati from the strings and the dynamic nuances that color the opening wind chords—which had been typical of Mozart. Once we reach the Allegro con brio, the spry energy of the first theme is what we expect at the beginning of a symphony in the Viennese tradition. Still, there is an impetuousness to the first violins’ rising lines, like a horn call, and an urgency throughout the movement that is clearly Beethoven’s tone of voice. Giving one instrument (the violins) a gesture associated with another (the horn) was a joke Haydn was fond of, but in Beethoven’s hands, it is intensified beyond the point of humor.
The Andante cantabile con moto is by no means a “slow movement,” but that was not necessarily the expectation for a second movement in the eighteenth century anyway. Beethoven’s choice here embodies what in German is called a Spaziergang—a stroll along the lane or wood that is gentle (the “cantabile”) but still moves along continuously (the “con moto”). A minor mode passage, beginning with soft chords in the oboes and a tentative line passing through the strings, might be a part of Beethoven’s promenade that passes under shading trees or through a shadowy alley. The reappearance of the opening melody, this time delicately balanced with a countermelody in the celli, follows through on the possibilities implied by its first presentation in a simpler round. All of this cleanly executed counterpoint was likely appreciated by the dedicatee, Baron van Swieten, who had encouraged all three of the Viennese symphonists in the study of Bach and Handel.
The minuet and trio, like all the other movements, seems expressly designed to meet contemporary expectations. Beethoven manages to avoid banality, though, with lightning quick shifts of mood, by turns forceful, elegant, sly, and boisterous. Beethoven’s finale is slightly unusual with its slow introduction, beginning with a single stentorian chord, followed by a tentative, searching series of statements from the violins. The Allegro molto e vivace, on the other hand, is clearly inspired by folk music. This was a musical wellspring that Haydn and Mozart were also drawn to, but there is already a wildness here that could only be Beethoven.
Along with the eight that followed, this symphony became part of the standard by which later composers would be evaluated—sometimes literally, in the case of the several nineteenth-century conservatories where the final composition requirement was to produce a symphony in the model of the Viennese classical style. Having passed his own final exam, Beethoven would go on to depart in even more obvious ways from his predecessors, but always with the precision and careful control of counterpoint that he had learned in Baron van Swieten’s house and the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn.