Beethoven's 1st Symphony, Op. 21

Beethoven's first symphony was written during his first period of mature creative development, in which he used a compositional language similar to that of Haydn and Mozart to create works which nevertheless had a certain individual grandeur, robustness and rude energy, and were written on a larger scale than their predecessors. Other important works from this period include the early piano sonatas, piano concertos numbers 1 and 2 and the six string quartets Op. 18. The Eroica symphony (no.3) and other works with opus numbers in the mid 50's mark the end of this period.

The First Symphony mostly follows a pattern established by Haydn's later works, consisting of a vigorous fast first movement preceded by a slow introduction, a more relaxed "slow movement" (which, as often happened, was at a moderate walking pace rather than slow), a so-called "minuet" (which, as often happened, was much too fast for dancing), and a finale based on a catchy, apparently innocent little tune which later turns out to be the source of some complicated developments.

In following Haydn, Beethoven was setting himself up as the target for some of the more serious-minded critics who had characterised the older composer's works as making a joke out of music and of introducing bizarre and irrelevant material. We can now see these elements of the music not as random deviations but as a way of extending the range of expression of the style, a path that Beethoven took up and turned to his own directions.

Beethoven's First is quite popular in performance and recordings: it's relatively short, lively and full of action and interest, with very few interpretative difficulties such as occur in his later works. In fact it's quite difficult to perform badly. Only the so-called slow movement presents some pitfalls: the tempo Andante cantabile con moto and overall character are difficult to judge accurately. The marking means that the music should go along at walking pace, in a singing style but with forward movement. "Cantabile" usually implies a more legato and slower performance, "con moto" a faster one. The difficulty here is to respect both the somewhat lively staccato style of the opening and closing themes and the lyrical, expressive but not over-emotional melody in between.

The 'wrong-key' introduction and its later echoes

To hear the slow introduction to the first movement, go to where you can hear the starts of all four movements (or for some different excerpts).

What you hear is a succession of woodwind chords supported by pizzicato strings. The most salient point is that the first chord is a discord, the dominant seventh - it 'wants to go somewhere', rather than being a point of rest. This was unusual but not entirely new; Haydn did something similar at the beginning of of his string quartet Op. 74, also in C. In this piece the first chord is the dominant 7th on G, which resolves onto the tonic with the melody B->C, so the home key is established, rather than just stated. Listen at .

But Beethoven went one better: the first chord, C7 (not G7) with E in the melody, resolves onto F, not C. This is the identical harmony and melody to the Haydn, except in the 'wrong' key. Obviously unless you have absolute pitch you won't know this yet, and Beethoven will have temporarily fooled you about the key of the piece. After the F chord, we get the dominant 7th on G, which should put us safely in C major - but unexpectedly, the music moves to A minor instead, a feeling of 'close, but no cigar'. Finally we get yet another dominant 7th on D, which leads us onto G major, which again isn't the home key! No wonder the critics were confused: if they thought the first phrase was establishing the home key of F, what was now happening - a modulation to G major - would make no sense so early in the piece.

Then as if to explain what on earth was going on, the violins pick up their bows and give a lyrical melody based on the progression from B->C, with an accompaniment that moves, at last, from G7 to C. This, at last, does establish C as the home key - and retrospectively, all that came before does make sense within the key. But the length of time, and number of different harmonies it takes before this resolution was unprecedented, and marks an increase in the timescale and intellectual complexity of music that would be a feature of Beethoven's work.

At the end of the introduction, we get some more wind chords underscored by the strings. The last chord is G7 with B in the melody, the same harmony as the three dominant 7th chords we started with (see the note below), taking us into the fast movement. But the woodwind chords don't stop there: during the Allegro this same dominant 7th with the third in the melody occurs again and again in the woodwind to herald or confirm a change of key. Usually this chord would just be a formal gesture at the end of a section, but because Beethoven has brought it to our attention at the start of the piece, it becomes almost like an independent theme. About 2/3 the way through the movement, Beethoven uses no less than 8 of these chords, in successively different keys - all in the woodwind, with the strings interjecting a bass line - as if he were taking the introduction to its logical, almost absurd, conclusion. The strings pick it up too: the melodic progression B->C is very prominent in the first subject tune of the Allegro. Some ghost or echo of those 'wrong' first two chords lives on through most of the movement.

Thematic relations and the 'joke' finale introduction

The main themes of the four movements have a common element: they all start out by moving from the dominant (sol) up to an accent on the tonic (doh), and then further upwards. (Imagine Away in a Manger...)

  • In the (fast) first movement, it happens again and again, G->B->C, five times, until the woodwind intervene to change the key. (There's no contradiction between hearing this as G->C and as G->B->C... G->C is just the executive summary.)
  • In the second movement, the first two notes are C->F, and the tune continues upwards to A and Bb. Transposed back to C major, this is G->C->E->F.
  • The 'Menuetto' starts with G->A->B->C and then on upwards, with the goal being the G above. In the middle of this movement Beethoven keeps repeating a little phrase Ab->Bb->C->Db, which (surprise!) is the same four notes transposed to a different key - as if we had to be reminded of the main idea of sol->doh.
  • In the Trio (central section between the Menuetto and its repeat), we start with a series of woodwind chords, then the violins come in below with a slight decoration: C->G->A->B->C, continuing up to the G above. In this movement it seems that Beethoven is extending the basic motif of sol->doh to sol->doh->sol'. The Trio also has many echoes of the first movement theme in its orchestration and harmonies, reworked into 3/4 time, and it is hardly a surprise when it ends with G7 chords and the woodwind harping (if oboes and flutes can be said to harp) on the melody B->C.

Now we come to the finale: it, unusually for a symphony, has a 5 1/2-bar slow introduction, consisting of a single fortissimo note G and five unaccompanied violin phrases. Which notes constitute the phrases?

G A B C D E F... and finally in the quick tempo
G A B C D E F G etc.
Yes, that's all there is: the basic motif G->C and its extension to the upper G, piece by piece. Yet Beethoven manages to turn this formal structure-spinning into music, and enjoyable music at that. On one level, all he is doing is trying, and 'failing', and trying again, to state the notes of the tune that follows; on another, probably unconscious, level, he is laying bare the background of all the main themes: G->B->C from the first movement, then G->C->E->F from the 2nd, finally the complete scale G->...->G which is the starting-point for the Menuetto and finale.

The aspects of the piece that appeared so anarchic to its original critics, were indeed unconventional, but are firmly integrated into the fabric of the symphony: in retrospect, these 'surprises' turn out to be surprisingly inevitable, if you look at the totality of what Beethoven was saying.

One can ask to what extent such relationships were formally, consciously planned by the composer, or whether they just 'came naturally'. As to whether they 'objectively' exist, I can only say, since music only exists if you can hear it, these relationships only exist if you can hear them. (Of course, you have to know the music well if you want to decide this for yourself.) This is a point that can be debated ad infinitum... which is a signal to stop writing.

Note: by 'the same harmony' I mean the same chord, but not necessarily in the same key.
PS: All Beethoven's symphonies include at least one movement in sonata form. I don't know where the claim that the slow movement was expected to be in A minor comes from - the actual key of this movement, F major, was perfectly normal for a piece in C major.