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About this Piece

Beethoven was seething with ambition when he relocated in 1792 to Vienna from the provincial Bonn where he'd grown up. During his first decade there Beethoven made a name for himself above all as a pianist of blazing originality. He also began to carve out his niche as composer with piano and chamber music, to remarkable success. It's hardly surprising that Beethoven's most experimental work was first heard in sonatas for his instrument (for example, in the uninhibited directness of his "Pathétique" Sonata from 1797)...

With our historical hindsight, a famous quote attributed to one of Beethoven's early patrons as the youth was setting out for Vienna sounds like an eloquent prediction: "You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn." But for the young composer, it must have been daunting to realize how much was at stake when the time came to show what he could create in the larger, more public form of the symphony. The occasion was his first major benefit concert in Vienna on April 2, 1800. Tellingly, compositions of Mozart and Haydn were included alongside those of the newcomer - as if to underscore just how accurate his patron's prediction had been.

In several ways the First Symphony bears out musicologist Donald Francis Tovey's verdict of the work as "a fitting farewell to the 18th century." The Symphony operates as a beautifully crafted assimilation of the essence of classical style rather than as a manifesto for a bold new outlook. Yet farewells can also imply greetings, and the work manages to look ahead as well as backward to some of the features that will become the signature of Beethoven's symphonic rhetoric....

Haydn predominates as the influence of the last two movements, but they subject their Haydnesque ploys to a greater intensity. The scherzo (in all but name) gives a rhythmically exuberant stamp to an ascending scalar pattern that also foreshadows the whirling scales of the finale. In the short lead into that finale Beethoven actually shows us the process of construction as the scale takes shape. Yet for all the seemingly unbridled energy of this high-spirited finale, Beethoven subtly controls it through the discipline of classical form.

- Thomas May is senior music editor at and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.