23 Nov 2018

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No 1 in C

From Music Alive, 7:30 pm on 23 November 2018

"In his First Symphony you can hear a young Beethoven still very influenced by Haydn, and by Mozart. It’s the lightest of his symphonies. It’s playful and with fewer instruments. It’s a very lively work and wonderful to play before the Ninth." ~Edo de Waart

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart.

Beethoven in 1804

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804 Photo: Joseph Willibrord Mähler, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Beethoven first started sketching ideas for a symphony in 1795, at the same time as he was putting the finishing touches to his Piano Concerto No 1. He then put the draft of this planned symphony aside, taking it up in earnest in 1799 and completing it the following year. From this point onwards the floodgates opened and five more symphonies followed in quick succession between 1801 and 1808.

It is not difficult to understand why Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 apparently caused him a few headaches. It's likely that the formidable heights to which Haydn brought the symphony (and the string quartet) had something to do with it.

The opening bars of Symphony No 1 follow a practice seen in a number of pre-1800 compositions (of which Mozart’s 'Linz' Symphony is a notable example) by providing a short, leisurely introduction that sets up an air of anticipation for the faster, main body of the movement. In Beethoven’s case, the Allegro con brio bounces along in a mood of light-hearted conviviality. The stately Andante proves elusive – both harmonically and texturally – and hints playfully at Baroque counterpoint (two or more coalescing melodic lines). Unusually for a slow movement of this era, it includes trumpets and timpani. The scurrying Menuetto is light-years away from the lithesome courtly dance that gave it its name and anticipates Beethoven’s subsequent choice of the gutsier scherzo as its replacement. The instrumentally pared-down Trio offers a stately and delicately-scored interlude before the jollity of the opening Menuetto recaptures the high ground. The Adagio– Allegro finale (another slow-fast teaser) races along virtually unimpeded, and climaxes in a colourful display of orchestral merriment.

Recorded 23 November 2018, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington by RNZ Concert.

Producer: David McCaw

Engineer: Graham Kennedy