Beethoven symphony no. 1 in C, op. 21

performed by the Cleveland Philharmonic under George Szell, or the below video of Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago symphony
I mentioned in a tweet the other day that Schubert feels like the gateway drug to classical-era music, at least from the standpoint of a lover of everything about Romantic-era symphonies. I’m not sure if my recent interest in much earlier-dated works coincides with my having discovered and fallen in love with Schubert’s ninth symphony or with my having given some of these earlier works many repeated listenings.
We will, in due time, get to Schubert’s ninth, but I want to work through some of his earlier pieces first. As I mentioned in my earlier post on Schubert’s first, I decided to start back at the beginning of his symphonic repertory and go from there. An extension of this train of thought was to go back to Beethoven and start with his first. I have given his third, fifth, and ninth many listenings, but am not as familiar with most of the others. So here we are at Beethoven no. 1. (Part of the association between the two composers was also which of their works is considered the true first romantic era symphony, Beethoven’s third or Schubert’s ninth. Both are often cited, and even though complications arising from Schubert’s penury meant it got performed and recognized as significant long after Beethoven’s, it was only finished a few decades later and is extremely significant in the development of the symphony.
I digress.
Back to Beethoven and

his first symphony. Also, welcome to Beethoven! It’s slightly intimidating to address such well-known works from such an amateur standpoint, so this is the first thing from Beethoven that we’ve seen here.

Again, back to the symphony. It premiered on April 2, 1800 in Vienna on a program that also contained the composer’s second piano concerto and his septet and works by Mozart and Haydn.
This is perhaps fitting, for this first symphony feels so like Haydn’s works, even echoes one specific piece I enjoy, which itself is not surprising as Haydn taught the young Beethoven. This could perhaps be thought of as the budding composer’s breakthrough among quite an important audience.
Standardly, it is in four movements, the first of which is in sonata form, as is the second, actually. The first movement opens with quite a puzzling statement for the beginning of a symphony, two sets of dominant-tonic chords, which sound pleasing enough by their very nature, but in the “wrong” key for the piece. It’s only after this “musical joke” (more like the punchline before the actual meat of the joke is delivered, putting it in perspective), that the home key is established and the first movement gets going, and quite pleasantly.
The third movement, while marked as the traditional minuet, is also marked Allegro molto e vivace, making it far faster than anyone could minuet (or waltz or whatever) to (in even the slower recordings like Fürtwangler or Klemperer; relatively speaking, Bernstein and Vienna play it at a breakneck [break-ankle?] pace!) It therefore acts more like a scherzo. Also uniquely, it does not present its own material; rather it uses bits from the first movement as its basis.
The fourth movement, after its opening, begins excitingly and happily, and sounds so much like the fourth movement of Haydn’s 88th symphony (the one that Bernstein conducts on YouTube with only his face; seriously, watch that video. It makes me happy), that I just have to love it. It caught my attention immediately and kind of made everything connect. It is also in sonata form and finishes confidently.
I really do enjoy this piece, and perhaps this is what it’s taking for me to “get there” with classical-era music. It’s catchy in a non-cliché, still meaningful and very pleasant way.
While this symphony had many of the fundamental ideas and structures of a very classical symphony, Beethoven was bold enough to throw in very new ideas, like the opening of the first movement, unique instrumentation, dynamics (just louder, or more specifically greater use of sforzando), content and tempi onto a familiar frame. Many of these things became styles or ideas that Beethoven would use throughout his career as a composer. I imagine this concert must have been an interesting one to attend. While the unique ideas mentioned seem anything but controversial today, they got him attention back then.
Also of interest is that this piece was performed only a few short years after both Haydn’s and Mozart’s last symphonies (5 and 12 years after, respectively). Was the world of music (is it even necessary to specify classical?) at the time looking for their next big name? Haydn and Mozart were gone (Mozart was dead; Haydn just didn’t write another symphony). Who would be next? Was the torch passed to this, Haydn’s young student? One could certainly think so. And remember who picked up where Beethoven left off, even quoting the final movement of Beethoven’s final symphony in his own first, thus earning it the title of “Beethoven’s 10th,” which it seems did not much please the not-so-young Brahms.
As for recordings of this piece, I have listened to many… And I’m not the best at choosing ‘the best’. There’s Bernstein/Vienna, Fürtwangler/Vienna, Karajan/Berlin, Ormandy/Philadelphia, Szell/Cleveland, as well as Norrington/London Classical Players, but I’m not super crazy about HIP recordings. For me, it came down to tempi and recording quality. While Fürtwangler and Klemperer seem often to be cited as the best Beethoven conductors, the sound quality of those recordings (along with Ormandy’s, although I love the scratch from the vinyl) is… typical of the period. Szell may not be as fiery as Karajan, who honestly… is kind of my go-to for Beethoven, mostly because it was the first set I was exposed to. I can’t say particularly that I dislike any of them for any good reason except for a tempo I’m not used to. So, pick one. There’s also Harnoncourt, Chailly, and about a half a million others. I dunno.


History aside, this is a symphony in which I hear strong influences from Haydn, and one must wonder if Beethoven already had that witty, lively spunk that is a trademark of Haydn’s music, inherently part of his personality (at least while he was young), or if it also was something Haydn imbued his young student with. All in all, this is a solid, confident, successful first work, much in the same way I felt Schubert’s first symphony was. Perhaps I will slowly be making my way into the eighteenth century…

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