Beethoven: Symphony no 1 in C

Beethoven was already an established pianist when he moved to Vienna in 1792 to study under Haydn and he soon established a reputation as a piano virtuoso and improviser in the salons of the nobility. Recognizing the genius and potential of his pupil, Haydn requested that Beethoven publicly call himself “student of Haydn”. The relationship wasn’t ideal, with the two men clashing on several personal levels including politics and religion but the musical relationship was more successful, and Haydn’s influence in the first symphony is clear, perhaps too clear. A contemporary critic rather harshly described it as “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity”. However it rapidly gained popularity with the public and established Beethoven’s reputation as a major orchestral composer in Vienna. The symphony is dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. As with tonight’s performance, the programme for the premiere on 2nd April 1800 included an excerpt from Haydn’s Creation, an Aria, along with a symphony from Beethoven’s other great musical influence, Mozart.

Beethoven’s first symphony is an important landmark in his compositional output. It was his first major work for orchestra, yet his use of the orchestra is both assured and highly original, and foreshadows the achievements that are so obvious in his later symphonies.

A conventional symphony of the time would have announced the key tonality clearly at the start of the work. Instead of starting out with a C major chord, Beethoven teases the listener by suggesting first that the key is F major, and then G major. To modern listeners the opening sounds perfectly innocent, but to contemporary audiences this was audacious and innovative. Beethoven clearly liked the device, as he used it again almost immediately in his Prometheus overture. After the teasing of the slow introduction there are few surprises in the rest of the first movement. It follows the sonata form model of Haydn and Mozart, but with a liveliness and exhilaration that is completely characteristic of Beethoven.

The second movement has a prevailing dotted rhythm, which links the developments, more motific than melodic. The third movement entitled ‘Minuet’ is much more like a scherzo than a classical minuet in its speed, swift key changes and character, another trait of Beethoven. Like the first movement, the finale opens with a brief slow introduction, where the violins meander through scale passages which increase in speed to introduce the main subject of the movement – full of energy.