Saturday, November 26, 2005


Beethoven: Symphony No. 1

Sketches for Beethoven's first symphony, in C major, date from about 1794, but the work was not completed until about 1800. The spirit of Haydn had inspired it; be it out of veneration or the desire to imitate that spirit, it was sylistically not as advanced as works written years earlier. Not until the Eroica symphony and the quartets of Opus 59 was Beethoven to give his ensemble works the type of expression that his piano sonatas had contained since about 1797. The symphony was published in 1801 as Opus 21; was completed in Vienna in 1800---twelve years later than the three "great" Symphonies of Mozart, and six years after the last and best of those of Haydn.

In this first symphonic work Beethoven is so completely dominated by his deep respect and reverence of Mozart's music, that it manifests more the distinctive traits of the latter than of those elements which characterize the later Beethoven and elevate him to a far loftier rank than Mozart was destined to reach.

Still, there are enough indications here of Beethoven's independence to make this Symphony interesting and important for its own sake.

The first movement is preceded by a slow introduction, and although the latter resembles introductions by Haydn and Mozart, it has a different function, for it is no more than a greatly enlarged perfect cadence which leads toward the C major of the first allegro. A firm sense of tonality and an amazingly fertile imagination which is directed to making his harmonic intentions clear. The first movement, alive and humorous, contains many touches of daring. For example, the development begins suddenly in a fortissimo in A major, and touches to D, G, and C minor in its first few measures; later sections are in B-flat, E-flat, and A minor. Beethoven's palette is immediately seen to be richer than his predecessors' and contemporaries'.

His ability to derive new melodies from isolated thematic fragments taken out of context is strikingly revealed in the slow movement. There Beethoven employs melodic scraps or motives as source material for his development sections and derives an ostinato figure from a rhythmic pattern first heard in the main theme of the movement.

The scherzo in Beethoven's symphonies is a new form. This is no longer the fast, transformed minuet which Haydn had introduced in his quartets of Opus 33 (1782) but a large, powerful, often humorous, sometimes profound movement which has only its triple meter and its three-part form in common with the minuet. The scherzo in the first symphony, which Beethoven still calls "Menuetto," foreshadows those later developments. Fast tempo, driving rhythms, sudden contrasts of mood and texture, and sections in which thematic fragments are briefly developed---these contsitute the first part. The trio provides great contrast.and represents a series of chords over a running figure in the violins. The effect is enchanting, and the movement is all to short.

The finale begins with a slow introduction which serves a twofold purpose: to provide the theme of the allegro with a springboard from which to take off; and to introduce a mock-serious moment which enhances the the humor of that allegro. The latter is in sonata-form, with a lilting set of themes that are well proportioned and skillfully manipulated.

The C-major symphony, on the whole, sparkles and is full of fun. There are no problems here, and Beethoven is completely the master of his material.

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