Beethoven - Symphony No. 1 in C Major

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – By the time Beethoven began to establish himself in Vienna, he found the city hungry for a new musical ambassador. It was the 1790s. Mozart was dead and Haydn was moving toward compositional retirement. Beethoven had the good manners to leave the 18th century to those two lions by waiting until 1800 to premiere his 1st Symphony. The next century, and the symphony genre itself, would soon be his.    

THE MUSIC – It is interesting that Beethoven would wait so long to write symphonies and string quartets. He was 30 years old when he completed his first symphony and just two years younger when he wrote his first quartet. Both genres were the territory of his sometime teacher Haydn so Beethoven might have been hesitant about entering those arenas while the older master was still productive. The interesting part of this is that Beethoven’s music would later have the same effect on Johannes Brahms. It would seem that future legends, especially the world-striding sort, tend to be respectful of their predecessors’ turf. Beethoven’s first foray into the symphony form, a form he would eventually change so much it would seem as if he invented it from whole cloth, was extremely well-received at its premiere. The music has a Classical veneer but also hints of revolutions to come in the shifting harmonic sands of the introduction that sound perfectly reasonable to our modern ears but must have been startling at the turn of the 19th century. These few bars alone represented a distinct departure from the final symphonies of Mozart and Haydn. Other advancements included an increased reliance on wind instruments and an infusion of a scherzo-like energy into the traditional minuet movement but these observations are simple details when compared to the impact of the whole, which signaled to the world the start of something truly new.     

THE WORLD – Washington, D.C. became the capital of the United States in 1800. Also that year, infrared rays were discovered by British astronomer William Herschel and Italian physicist Alessandro Volta invented the world’s first electric battery.

THE CONNECTION – The most recent Utah Symphony Masterworks performance of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony occurred in September of 2001. Keith Lockhart conducted.