January 19 – Friday at 7:00 p.m.
FRIDAYS@7: BEETHOVEN’S EROICA
Symphony No. 1
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
At a Glance
Beethoven composed this symphony in 1799-1800. The first performance took place on April 2, 1800, in Vienna. The work was published with a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of Vienna’s most prominent music-lovers and patrons.
The First Symphony runs about 25 minutes in performance. Beethoven scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in March 1929. The most recent performances were in July 2017, led by Franz Welser-Möst.
About the Music
Nine is not a magic number for symphonies. Mozart wrote more than fifty (including his similarly-built orchestral serenades and suites), Haydn over a hundred. Yet nine is all that Beethoven managed to write. Or, perhaps, all he actually needed in order to encode his changing — and revolutionary — thinking about what had become the quintessential form for orchestral music. Starting at age 29 and ending a quarter century later in 1824, Beethoven worked hard in each of his symphonies, to distill his changing understanding about how music works. Each is a step forward, from the “here” of what had gone before to the “there” that Beethoven wanted to find — of what music could become, of the music’s power to tell humanity’s struggles and triumphs, of our pleasures and possibilities.
It is often said that there is little that is revolutionary in Beethoven’s First Symphony. Indeed, this work is too often dismissed merely as a natural outgrowth of symphonic traditions and evolution that had transpired through the works of Mozart and Haydn in the two previous decades. Yet this symphony isn’t just another symphony of the past, in small ways that make a difference. Choices that Beethoven made in this music clearly pointed forward, in part as ideas to try, but also as specific lines and traditions he was ready to cross.
As Franz Welser-Möst says, “Beethoven’s First Symphony is already a step toward the Fifth. And that is how it should be played. That is how we should listen to it. It is not just a nice and happy and easy-going symphony. It has a direction, a kind of fire beneath the music that will carry us forward, from this beginning onward. The last movement is built with a kind of intense, fiery scale. Here Beethoven’s spark of genius is clearly showing, as part of his own journey forward.”
Beethoven had written much by the time he started his first symphony, including ten piano sonatas, six string quartets, and two piano concertos. He had much experience and many lessons behind him. He had waited to tackle the symphony as a genre, but he was ready to begin the journey toward the future for music that his mind was telling him was possible.
Symphony No. 1 turned out to be a good opening statement for Beethoven the symphonist, fully in command of the orchestra’s forces and voices — and not content to merely write “another” of what others had already written. He tightens everything up musically, and works hard to ensure that musical ideas are related and developed appropriately. He also adds a sense of the unexpected, and a sense of humor. These, of course, Haydn and Mozart had also expressed, but Beethoven’s choices are both more deliberate and a bit more daring. Even in the traditional format and form, his music says things are going to be different.
The first movement begins with a chord of unexpected discord. It is an unstable sound, a question rather than a statement, with each chord resolving in new directions. Finally, the key stabilizes as it reaches the main Allegro section of the movement. Beethoven has given himself a touching “overture” and is now ready to begin. He builds the rest of the movement from a driven, aspiring forward momentum — occasionally sounding like Mozart, but more often speaking in clear Beethovenian syllables, sound colorings, dramatic sidesteps, and cascading passages.
The second movement continues in Beethoven’s new symphonic voice. There is a clear melody, moving forward against subtle cross-currents and opening into wider paths of ideation. The timpani add intrigue at crucial moments, as the music slithers around obstacles and moments of repose. The woodwinds, too, play an important role along with the trumpets.
The third movement is labelled a minuet, as Haydn or Mozart might have stated, but Beethoven’s is too fast to dance to. It is instead a “scherzo” of clear but modest proportions, giving us a sense of Beethoven’s comedic timing. The music steps forward, measure by measure, high and low, loud and soft, smiling and surprised.
The finale fourth movement begins with a slow introduction, before scampering off with an angular scale burning with fire — gracefully combusting the ingredients that Beethoven lays out before us. Trumpets and drums again add fuel to the storyline, along with a merry tune of humorous questions and answers, which rather quickly carries us into a blazing momentum accompanied by sudden starts, stops, recurrence, and end.
Beethoven presented the Symphony No. 1 in April 1800 at a concert he organized and financed himself. He dedicated the work to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Court Librarian to the emperor, who had helped introduce Beethoven to Vienna and to certain musical manuscripts in his first decade in the city. —Eric Sellen © 2018