Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 19, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
When the 22-year-old Beethoven left Bonn late in 1792, it was ostensibly on a sort of study leave, to work with Haydn in Vienna. Count Waldstein, probably Beethoven’s staunchest early support, wrote at the time: “With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” But Beethoven seems to have been somewhat less than assiduous and the relationship proved frustrating for both parties. Beethoven always sought to broaden his knowledge and technical skills, but he also always went his own way.
His study with Haydn lasted only about a year, but Beethoven stayed on in Vienna, forging a growing reputation as a brilliant pianist and composer. He wrote particularly for his own instrument and his own use, and in his first eight years in the capital city he created two piano concertos, a dozen solo piano sonatas, and a large amount of chamber music featuring the keyboard.
But no symphony. Whether or not he was daunted by the implied challenge of Haydn, the living master of the genre, or just circumspect about establishing his own brand and creating the professional network necessary to produce a large-scale public concert, he waited until he was 30 to offer his First Symphony to the public. Beethoven started work on it late in 1799, and completed it early in 1800. After writing a horn sonata for a visiting virtuoso’s quite successful concert at the Burgtheater, Beethoven got the use of the hall himself, and produced a grand concert there April 2, featuring a Mozart symphony, excerpts from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, his own improvisation and one of his first two piano concertos, and the premieres of his Septet (which members of the LA Phil play here Oct. 13) and “a new Grand Symphony with full orchestra.”
According to the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “this proved to be the most interesting concert we have had in a long time… and at the end we had a symphony of [Beethoven’s] own composition that displayed great artistry, innovation, and a wealth of ideas; except that the winds were overused, so that it was music for band rather than for the whole orchestra.”
The winds are indeed prominent in the score, beginning with the opening chords – moving toward the home harmony rather than starting on it, an audacity much remarked at the time but which barely tweaks the modern ear. Other innovations include the use of the timpani in the slow movement (an Andante that is really a minuet) and the dynamism of the actual Menuetto (which is really a scherzo on Beethoven’s new model). The energetic finale gets a comic introduction with a hesitant little scale that has already been a subtle but important presence.