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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
Beethoven didn’t compose his First Symphony until he was nearly 30 years old. He’d been in Vienna for the better part of a decade, was up to his ears in friends and patrons, and had demonstrated his mastery as a composer and a performer, so what was he waiting for?
There were two genres Beethoven persistently avoided in his earlier years – the string quartet and the symphony. Both were the territory of his teacher Joseph Haydn, who had virtually invented the string quartet in the 1760s and eventually composed more than 100 symphonies. All of the genres in which Beethoven worked in the 1790s – concerto, piano sonata, and chamber music (quartets excepted) – were not as central to Haydn’s output. Psychologically and musically, Beethoven felt like he needed to be on really solid ground before making inroads into Haydn’s territory. In 1799, with two concertos, ten piano sonatas, a raft of chamber works, and extensive concert tours through central Europe behind him, Beethoven finally tackled the symphony.
The work that emerged is both mature and individual. It begins with a challenging gesture, a musical throwing-down of the gauntlet, as Beethoven meanders through a series of inconclusive chords – initially played by winds and pizzicato strings – in the Adagio molto introduction, trying each one out before finally settling on C major with the shift into the Allegro con brio. It’s like starting with a cliffhanger, and while the music sounds perfectly tame to us today, the Viennese audience at the work’s premiere on April 2, 1800, would have sensed that revolution was afoot.
The slow movement, with its gentle melody, serves as a reminder of Beethoven’s lyrical gifts, while the breathless Menuetto confronts us with the revolutionary once again. Here, what was once a stately, measured dance associated with the elegance and refinement of court society becomes something explosive, brimming over with energy and life. The finale begins with a gesture similar in effect to that which opened the first movement, as the violins tentatively find their way toward a theme, three notes at first, then four, then five, then six, then seven, like a mouse poking its head out of its hole and sniffing around before running off across the room. And that’s what the rest of the movement is – a mad dash in perpetual motion, where the only tempo differentiation seems to be between fast and faster.
— John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.