The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are perhaps the most often recorded body of music in the history of sound. A quick search on Amazon reveals over 2,000 different items for purchase, on all sorts of media, analog and digital. Beethoven’s culminating work in the genre of the symphony, his glorious Ninth, even had an impact on the design of the compact disc. There is a great love in Japan for Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral finale, and it has become a New Year’s Eve tradition for orchestras in Japan to perform the work. This tradition may have had its origin in a World War II prison camp, during a cultural exchange between German and Japanese soldiers housed together.
In 1979, over 150 years after Beethoven’s death, the first industry standards for the commercial compact disc were being formulated by executives at Sony and Phillips. The initial thought was to create a disc with the capacity to hold 60 minutes of music. This would not have been long enough to contain a complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on one disc. The wife of Sony chairman Akio Morita insisted her favorite piece of music be accommodated on one disc. The longest recording at that time was a treasured performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, which ran 74 minutes long. Pressure from the Sony executives won out, and the Phillips preference for a 115mm disc was replaced by a 120mm disc, which would have enough capacity to contain the Ninth symphony. (This conveniently also erased a head start Phillips had in manufacturing, as the Phillips corporation already had a factory set up to make 115mm compact discs.)
Although few pieces are as influential as Beethoven’s last symphony, he entered somewhat cautiously into composing his first symphony. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major was premiered on April 2, 1800, and first published a year later. The original manuscript is lost, so we are not certain of the exact date it was finished, but composition on the First may have begun up to five years before it was performed. Beethoven was 30 years old at the premiere of his First Symphony. By comparison, Mozart had written 38 symphonies by that age, and Schubert died at the age of 31 with nine or ten symphonies behind him at that point. In 1800, it had been five years since Haydn’s final symphony, and twelve years since the composition of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Beethoven was very aware of his audience in Vienna, and although other composers wrote works after Mozart and Haydn, very little had caught on. Ludwig was an outsider from Bonn, and had earned a good reputation as a pianist and composer. He wanted his reputation to continue to grow with his first efforts in the realm of symphonic composition.
In his First symphony, we hear Ludwig van Beethoven as a classicist, showing a mastery of the Viennese classical style handed down to him by Haydn and Mozart. This is Beethoven, aware of his musical heritage and the expectations of the audience. This is also Beethoven before he slowly began to lose his hearing, before the emotional turmoil of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and before his self-characterization as artistic hero against the forces of fate and destiny. The First symphony is a brilliant work in its own right, but it is also impossible for modern listeners to hear it without knowing what is to arrive with the other eight. If Ludwig had written a dozen more symphonies in the style of his first, he would still be an important composer of the day. What we realize is that Ludwig is going to smash through the classical models that were the standard, and bring music into an entirely different territory. In the First symphony, we see Beethoven giving the audience evidence that he has conquered the classical model. We know he is going to burst free from the model later.
Beethoven, that bad boy from Bonn, does give us a good measure of originality even as he tries to give the Viennese audience what it expects. The first movement of the work is in sonata form with a slow introduction. The very first notes are an unexpected dissonance, a dominant seventh chord on C that resolves to F major. Next, a dominant seventh on G resolves to A minor, then D dominant seventh moves us to G major. This harmonic ambiguity does nothing to establish the advertised key of C major, and has the effect of giving us a mysterious and groping introduction to the work. On one level, sonata form is about establishing a home key, moving away from it and finding our way back to it. Slow introductions were common enough, but being unclear about the key is not normal: as Professor Robert Greenberg says, “Haydn would not have done this”. Our 21st century ears do not feel shocked by a simple seventh chord, but it was an original move in 1800. George Grove wrote in his 1896 book, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, “The opening may not seem novel or original to us, but at that date it was audacious …..”.
After the much written about twelve bar introduction, Ludwig gives us a motivic first theme that firmly establishes the home key of C major in three phrases. Interestingly, some of the underlying background harmonic progression of the first theme is exactly what was the foreground harmonic mystery of the introduction. This is a brilliant bit of construction that integrates the wandering introduction into the body of the sonata form. It is even more impressive when this progression is expanded in the first theme when it returns in the recapitulation. The second theme is built with two motives found in the first theme, a four note descending idea now elongated and traded between oboe and flute, accompanied by an arpeggiated triad figure in the strings. This is Beethoven’s main compositional process, composing with compact motives in an economical fashion that creates a genius of architecture from these seemingly insignificant building blocks. The development section of this movement is a classically restrained structure which primarily uses sequences of material from the themes.
The second movement is what passes for a slow movement, but in reality it is not all that slow. It is marked Andante Cantabile con moto, translated as, a walking pace in a singing style with motion. Ludwig really does not want this section to drag in tempo. The second movement is also in a sort of sonata form, with embellishment serving as the main technique in the development. This sort of quasi-sonata form has a clear precedent in the slow movement of Mozart’s G minor symphony. Beethoven was clearly aware of this, and likely most of the Viennese audience was as well. It is a measure of respect and homage to Wolfgang Mozart, and Beethoven surely welcomed the comparison in the listener’s mind.
The labeling of the third movement as a Minuet is a bit of a farce, as this is clearly a Beethovenian Scherzo in disguise. A Minuet is a stately, courtly dance in triple meter, but any dancing couple would have to ingest a large dose of methamphetamine to keep up with the fast and driving music of this section. It is a positive whirlwind of a movement, far and away the most original of the four. There is a connection to the first movement. A rising chromatic motive from the introduction of the first movement, which is incorporated into the body of the first movement, now becomes the basis for the opening theme of this third movement. Even if your ears don’t consciously pick out this connection, there is a subliminal unity created between movements when these motives appear transformed in other places of the work. One of Beethoven’s greatest strengths is this sort of musical construction, and here we find it on display in his very first symphony.
The fourth and final movement is another sonata form, full of vitality and a fitting finale to the work. The most striking feature is the humorous opening to the movement. It is not terribly often that the word humorous is used in conjunction with the troubled, tormented, digestively challenged and emotionally suffering Ludwig van Beethoven. Here in the introduction to the fourth movement, humor and a clear musical joke, in the manner of Haydn, is exactly what Beethoven was going for. The opening grand unison G is followed by a passage in the strings, where they try to play a scale by building it one measly note at a time. The listener is meant to smile, to giggle to themselves at this comedy of strings. Antony Hopkins writes in his book, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, the strings are “like a bevy of hesitant beginners clutching unfamiliar instruments, the first violins make abortive attempts to play a scale, progressing one note further each time.” After Beethoven’s little musical game, the movement takes off with a rising scale theme that serves as a fittingly vigorous finale to the work.
I have included below, two different performances of the symphony. The first is by the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan conducting. Karajan recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven symphonies on four separate occasions in his career. It was a sort of personal obsession of his to create the definitive performance of Beethoven’s works with the best recording technology available. As recording technology improved, Karajan got the bug to re-record the symphonies to create a cutting edge version. The second recording is the Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood conducting, one of the recent recordings in the “historically informed performance” approach. The Academy plays on period instruments similar to those of Beethoven’s day, and more closely follows Beethoven’s metronome markings. The result is a bit drier and cleaner sound, with no vibrato, and an overall quicker pace to the performance. If you don’t particularly care for either of these recordings, look around a bit. I assure you there are only a few hundred more editions in print from which you may choose.
Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music