Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1

I am surprised, looking back at the list of posts on the blog, that I have not written much about the Beethoven symphonies. I have put up more posts about Shostakovich symphonies than Beethoven symphonies!

What I would like to do is put up a post on each of the Beethoven symphonies that I haven't discussed. Since the only ones I have talked about at any length have been numbers 3 and 6 (with multiple mentions of No. 5) I am just going to start with the First Symphony.

Beethoven started sketching out parts of this symphony while still taking counterpoint lessons with Albrechtsberger in the spring of 1787 but didn't begin composition in earnest until 1799. The symphony was completed much later on and premiered in April 1800.

Beethoven's First Symphony was something of a turning point for the genre. Before this, the symphony had tended to be rather a light, cheerful outing for the orchestra. Very few were written in minor keys and, with a few exceptions, the mood was light rather than heavy. One of the big exceptions is, of course, Mozart's 40th Symphony in G minor. But note that out of his 41 official symphonies, only two, this one and an earlier one in the same key, are minor. Haydn as well wrote few in minor keys. Haydn wrote 106 symphonies of which 104 were given numbers in the early 20th century. Mozart wrote approximately 40 symphonies. Beethoven wrote only 9, an order of magnitude fewer, and of that nine two, nos 5 and 9, are in minor keys. Schubert as well wrote only nine symphonies (and some sketches) and two of his are also in minor.

But Beethoven's First Symphony, though exhibiting a number of striking features, is still very much an 18th century work. Here is the beginning of the slow introduction to the first movement:


We are rather insensitive to tonality these days after a century of modalism and atonality, so it is not easy for us to appreciate the wit of this opening. The function, from a tonal point of view, of the beginning of a piece, is to present to the listener in an unmistakable way, the home key of the work. About 99% of the time, this is exactly what happens. But composers being who they are, they sometimes like to fool us. The most famous example of this is probably the opening of Mozart's "Dissonant" string quartet, where he completely clouds the tonality for the whole introduction. Here is that opening:


I have talked about this opening before, but just note that the opening C pedal is contradicted by the notes above and even it descends chromatically so by the time we get to the bottom of the page, we are thoroughly confused about the key.

Now look back at the Beethoven introduction. No confusion here: it opens with a perfectly normal V7 - I cadence. Followed by another V7 - I cadence. Followed by yet another V7 - I cadence. The only problem is that these cadences are in three different keys! First F major, then C major, then G major. So what key ARE we in? No way to tell, but as the introduction goes on, it becomes quite clear that C major is the key.

This is a high form of musical wit: it is like someone saying, "today I am going to talk about social justice, no, just kidding, the topic is going to be environmentalism, ha, ha, kidding again, actually we are going to talk about sex!" I think that a sensitive 18th century listener might have picked up on the humor fairly easily.

Beethoven's First Symphony comes at a particularly ripe moment as Haydn's last symphony had appeared five years earlier and Mozart's twelve years earlier. Audiences were ready for another symphonic master and Beethoven aimed to fit the bill. The First Symphony has striking features as I said, such as that harmonic joke at the beginning, but the first movement settles into a well-done, though not atypical, sonata allegro. The second movement is unusual only in the tempo, which is rather quick for a slow movement. The third movement, labeled a minuet, is so fast that it is more like a scherzo. The last movement is very much a tribute to Haydn and even resembles a bit Haydn's Symphony No. 88.

Like the first, the last movement also has a slow introduction that keeps us in the dark for a bit. But the means are entirely different from either what Beethoven did in the first movement or what Mozart did in the string quartet. Beethoven gives us a chord with octave Gs and follows it with some scale fragments:

Click to enlarge

What we had in the introduction to the first movement was too much information: cadences in three different keys. What Mozart did was give us conflicting information: the harmonies are too confusing to  make the key evident. What Beethoven does here in the last movement is give us too little information: the key might be G and we don't start to hear it as C until he reaches that fermata F towards the end.

In general what characterizes Beethoven's treatment of the symphony, apart from the details I have just been mentioning, is a heightened intensity. The music is punchier (more sfs and sforzandi), the winds are a bit more prominent, and he brings out details in unexpected ways such as how the second theme, heard in the winds, migrates to the cellos in the first movement. The harmonic treatment is also a bit more aggressive, less elegant than in Haydn and Mozart.

Now let's listen. Here is the Orchestre R√©volutionnaire et Romantique conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner:


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