1800: Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, age 29

Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, C major 8:05
  2. Andante cantabile con moto, F major 6:25
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace, C major 3:18
  4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace, C major 5:31

Total time: 23:19

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, C major 8:50
  2. Andante cantabile con moto, F major 7:12
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace, C major 3:32
  4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace, C major 5:28

Total time: 25:01

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes
  • 2 oboes
  • 2 clarinets in C
  • 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns in C and F
  • 2 trumpets in C
  • 2 timpani in C and G
  • strings

1st movement:

It starts with a slow intro, and this turned out to be typical for Beethoven, who continually channeled Haydn and Mozart – who often did the same towards the end of their lives. Sonata form follows. The thing that strikes me about early Beethoven is this: although his fast music also is playful and light – like Mozart – it also just “packs a punch” that no one else had, and his endings almost have feeling of colossal power. You can already hear some of the vital force of the end of the 5th symphony in the 1st movement, and that’s unique to Beethoven.

2nd movement:

It’s sonata form again.This is pretty calm and not particularly turbulent, nothing like his later slow movements, like the 2nd movement of the “Eroica”. It always reminds me of a clock as the steady beat is sort of layered between different voices.

3rd movement:

This is a “minuet” in name only. It’s a scherzo, and writing scherzos was one of the trademarks of Beethoven. It is almost as if the minuet was just too stodgy and old fashioned for Beethoven. Often in Mozart the 3rd movement feels to me like a bit of a filler. Let’s just relax for awhile before the big 4th movement. But not Beethoven. He comes out with huge energy, and for at least another century other composers copied him. That would probably would right now if modern composers still wrote symphonies.

4th movement:

It’s about five and a half minutes long. The final movement begins with Adagio (very slow) then suddenly moves to Allegro molto e vivace (very fast and lively.) If I had to sum this up with one word, it would be fun. Beethoven always finished his symphonies with a big flourish. His endings are not only never anticlimactic, they always leave you with the feeling that he left the best for last. In fact, I think no other composer has ever surpassed Beethoven in making us feel that everything drives to the last bar.

Clarinets were a big deal:

Early Mozart does not have them, but gradually you see them more and more often in his music. Beethoven follows suit.

And timpani:

You also see timpani used more and more by Mozart, and often this is the only percussion instrument in this time. Later you see more and more instruments appear in the percussion.

Dedication:

It was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. Beethoven, as was true of Mozart, was still dependent on the support of the aristocracy.But things were changing, and Beethoven increasingly demanded and got respect. Mozart did not. Mozart had to deal with very different realities. Beethoven’s view of himself is pretty much summed up by this famous quote from Prince Lichnowsky, one of his appreciators and patrons:

“Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

We don’t know exactly when Beethoven finished his first symphony, We only know that it was published in 1801 in Leipzig. Sketches of the finale were found from as early as 1795, and he was not 25 until the end of that year, so the creation of this was a long process.

A critic of the time…

“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 critic was an idiot. Gee, what a shock, a stupid critic! He meant that the beginning sounded unusual and new, and to the seriously stupid anything that is unusual and new is bad. Fortunately millions of people since then love what Beethoven did and realize instinctively that it is simply brilliant.

Timing…

When I started writing about this music, my knowledge of the ages of the composers was much weaker that it is now. Note that Beethoven was already around age 30 when he finished this symphony, and that’s important. By age 30 Mozart was almost done writing symphonies. Had he lived longer, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have written a lot more, but the important thing here is that at around age 32 he was completing his last three symphonies. How scared were other people of Mozart? I’d say they were terrified of his genius, and that slowed Beethoven down. He did not want to present his 1st symphony to the world until he was sure he got it right, just as many years later Brahms would be terrified of him and delayed his 1st symphony until around age 40 or so.

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