Beethoven Symphony No. 1

Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 1 to demonstrate his talent as a composer to the general public. Thanks to Mozart and Haydn’s efforts the symphony had already developed into a sophisticated musical form; Beethoven now intended to attain with the symphonic form what he had already reached with the string quartet and the piano sonata: he wished not simply to inherit from his predecessors, but to surpass them.

The symphony begins unusually with a dissonant chord that heightens the tension; this caused much adverse comment when the symphony was first heard. As if this were not serious enough, the resolution of the dissonance — a chord of C major, the principal key of the symphony — does not come immediately but only after several tense harmonies.

There are other things that would have struck the listener of the time as novel: the third movement may well bear the traditional title of Minuet, except that it is far too rapid and witty to be one. It is in fact a scherzo, a form that Beethoven would choose openly in his following symphony. The beginning of the finale is also a surprise: instead of presenting the listener with a new theme immediately, the composer lets the theme develop almost hesitatingly, by slowly adding a notes to it; it is as if it were being improvised and it reaches its final form only gradually.

Nonetheless Beethoven stays within the bounds of respectability in this symphony. His innovations still fit with the form of the traditional symphony perfected by his predecessors, as if Beethoven did not want to shock his audience. A contemporary wrote ‘If we see only one claw of the lion, then that is because the lion found that it was more sensible not to attack yet.'

Burgtheater, Wenen (foto: Thomas Ledl, 2013)
Burgtheater, Wenen (PHoto: Thomas Ledl, 2013)

The Symphony No. 1 was first performed on 2 April 1800 in the Burgtheater in Vienna during a concert that would have seemed very long indeed if it were performed today; the programme included not only the Symphony No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 2, the Septet and an improvisation on a theme of Beethoven, but also a symphony by Mozart and two arias by Haydn. The Symphony No. 1 was an immediate success and has never left the orchestral repertoire; Beethoven's name as a symphonic composer had been firmly established.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood