The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Thomas May

No survey of the history of the symphony fails to mention the struggle Johannes Brahms had to work through when he wanted to make his mark on the genre. It took him years to summon the courage to complete his First Symphony. How could it not, considering the nearly traumatic sense of intimidation he experienced: "You have no idea what it does to the spirits of someone like me when he always hears such a giant marching behind him."

The giant in question was, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven. But Beethoven must have faced his own Oedipal issues when he was an ambitious twenty-something composer, having relocated to the fever-paced Habsburg capital from distant Bonn in 1792. Mozart had died only the year before, and Haydn was in the middle of his last, glorious outburst of symphonic creativity, elevating the genre to new heights with his commissions for London music lovers.

Together, Mozart and Haydn transformed what started out as an essentially lightweight type of composition intended for entertainment or ceremony into something far larger - not necessarily in terms of duration or orchestration, but of complexity of language. In their hands - and without competitive antagonism, since each welcomed the other's influence - the symphony became a medium capable of sustaining a compelling drama on a large scale. The writer and critic (and sometime-composer) E.T.A. Hoffmann, praising what Beethoven had already accomplished in the first decade of the new century, declared the symphony to be "the highest type of instrumental music" and singled out Mozart's symphonies for offering "an anticipation of the infinite."

Naturally Mozart and Haydn did not affect this paradigm shift in a vacuum, independent of the contributions of a wide spectrum of other composers - nor were they by any means the only significant influences on young Beethoven (another being, for example, the powerful, even "militaristic" rhetoric developed to the West by composers responding to the French Revolution). Still, their most recent accomplishments loomed as Beethoven worked his way methodically through the major genres of the era, beginning with chamber music and piano sonatas. The musicologist Elaine Sisman suggests that his official opening gambit as a symphonist - the opening movement, in fact, of the Symphony No. 1 - combines influences from Mozart and Haydn alike (the former's last symphony, the "Jupiter," and Haydn's No. 97, both also in C major). Influence in this case means a complicated mix of strategies. Sisman characterizes this as "a clear example of Beethoven choosing models for his symphonic debut with the purpose of homage, of placing himself within a tradition, laced with one-upmanship, and casting the result in the most brilliantly conventional and instantly recognizable of eighteenth-century symphonic modes: the ‘C major symphony' tradition with its trumpets and drums and ‘ceremonial flourishes.'"

Like Brahms, Beethoven paved his way carefully, even though as a teenager in Bonn he had tinkered with the genre. The occasion he chose to premiere his First Symphony was his first major benefit concert in Vienna, on April 2, 1800 - an event in which, symbolically enough, works by Mozart and Haydn were programmed alongside those of the newcomer.

The First Symphony has been called "a fitting farewell to the eighteenth century," but farewells can also imply greetings. While Beethoven assimilates the essence of the high Classical style of his predecessors, the work involves much more than a backward glance by a new player on the scene. Traits that Beethoven would develop into his unique symphonic language are anticipated throughout the score. As a whole, the First Symphony explores the untapped potential of the Classical style while balancing conservative and innovative elements into a boldly confident statement.

For example, tonality - the ways in which harmonic relationships are established and altered - is the engine that drives the musical argument in Classical style. In the very opening bars of the slow introduction, Beethoven plays a game of harmonic suspense, taking a detour to finally arrive at the Symphony's home key of C major. The result is to intensify the gravitational force hammered home in the first theme of the Allegro proper, with its insistent repetitions of the tonic C. Beethoven's use of contrast and integration enhance the fine-tuned principles of sonata form with a sinewy energy. Notice how naturally the lyrical second theme in the woodwinds complements the strings' vigorous main theme. To bring closure to the movement's adventures, the coda becomes an extended occasion for reaffirming the home key with even greater force.

In contrast to the echoes of Mozart's jubilant C major in his final "Jupiter" Symphony, Beethoven pays homage to the corresponding movement of Mozart's G minor Symphony (No. 40) in his Andante. Yet he combines this reference to the past with a novel approach, seizing on the theme's repeated notes and exaggerating their emphasis. The sonority of timpani and trumpet is, incidentally, an unusual touch for a classical slow movement.

In the last two movements, Haydn predominates as the chief influence. The third movement, saucily labeled "Minuet," is in reality Beethoven's first symphonic scherzo-and the most overtly original movement of the entire Symphony. The simple rising-scale pattern of the scherzo theme wittily foreshadows the ascending scale that, like a spun top, sets the finale's main theme in motion. Beethoven makes a teasing game of this idea in the deceptive entrée into the finale. At the beginning of the Symphony, he illustrated the process of composition by feeling his way through harmonic progressions. Here Beethoven shows how a theme itself is put together. As he subjects it to new contexts, he subtly controls and tames the finale's high-spirited energy through the discipline of Classical form. The sense of victorious resolution he achieves at the end of the movement underscores Beethoven's declaration of independence as a symphonist.