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Haydn, Franz Joseph
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Beethoven, Ludwig van

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Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800)

Portrait of composer Beethoven, Ludwig van

Beethoven, Ludwig van

Dec 16, 1770 - Mar 26, 1827


Beethoven’s First Symphony is a landmark event that not only initiated the great canon of nine from this composer, but was to have repercussions on the genre that reverberated across the span of the entire century. Compared with symphonies by earlier composers, we find larger formal dimensions, an expanded time frame, bolder and more sophisticated harmonic adventures, increased emotional intensity, and an emphatic sense of force and aggressiveness. Learn more


Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770;
died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

German classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven is often considered one of the bridge composers, and the evolution of the classical music period into the romantic era can be seen in his many compositions. Living and working primarily in Vienna, Austria during his life Beethoven is often considered one of the greatest composers in history, producing work even after a devastating hearing loss. His catalogue of musical work has inspired and intimidated composers that came after him.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany on December 16, 1770, although his birthday is often celebrated on December 17, the day of his baptism. Like many composers before him, his first music teacher was his father, himself a court musician in Bonn, and without success attempted to show him off as a child prodigy, much as Mozart's father had. Beethoven's childhood was difficult, and his father, an abusive alcoholic, beat him often when he did not perform up to his standards. Still, others soon recognized his great musical abilities, and in 1787 while in Vienna he got the opportunity to play for Mozart. He was given a job and music lessons by Christian Gottlob Neefe and sponsorship by the German court to play and study music. His career was halted slightly when he was 17, and his mother died, forcing him to care for two younger brothers.

In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna, intending to train with Joseph Haydn. Unfortunately, Haydn did not appreciate Beethoven's unconventional musical ideas and playing style and stopped lessons. Despite this minor set-back, Beethoven quickly became known in Vienna for being a piano genius as well as a composer, though the composing came much more slowly. In the 1790's, Beethoven decided upon the career of a freelance musician, rejecting the idea of working for a church or a court, and supported himself through public performances, sales of his compositions and grants and stipends from noblemen willing to support his work and talent.

Typically Beethoven's musical life is separated into three periods: Early; Middle; and Late. In his Early period, his compositions and playing style reflected the greats of classical music, including his former teacher Haydn and Mozart, while he simultaneously experimented with new stylistic avenues and finding his own voice. It was during this time that he composed his first and second symphonies, along with the first six string quartets, two piano concertos and twenty piano sonatas, including two of his most famous, "Pathetique" and "Moonlight."

Beethoven's Middle period started after he lost his hearing and is recognized as being the period during which his most dramatic and large-scale music works were composed. It was during this time that Beethoven composed many famous works, including symphonies numbers three through eight, the last three piano concertos, the triple concerto and his only violin concerto. He also composed five string quartets, seven more piano sonatas and his only opera, Fidelio.

Beethoven's Late period started in 1816 and continued until his death. Compositions during this time are typically categorized as being Beethoven's most intellectual, intense and personal works. They also are the most experimental in his library. For example, his Ninth Symphony was the first symphony to add a choral part to the final movement.

Beethoven's most well-known works include his Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 5 , a Violin concerto, the "Pathétique," "Moonlight," and "Appassionata" piano sonatas and the "Für Elise". "Ode to Joy," the recognizable final choral movement of the Ninth Symphony is the National Anthem of the European Union and was played by Leonard Bernstein during the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events commemorate the universal nature of Beethoven's music works. Because of the breadth of Beethoven's artistic experimentation and his success at creating works that could be understood and enjoyed by the entire world, many have called Beethoven, not only the greatest composer in history, but one of the greatest minds in history.

Beethoven's personal life was very difficult, and when he began to lose his hearing at age 28 he thought seriously about suicide. He was not easy to get along with, and often fought with relatives and friends, a trait that potentially was the reason he never married. Because of his freelance lifestyle, he often was in financial distress. Many note the influence of Beethoven's troubled life in his music; his compositions have themes that center around great struggle that is resolved with victory.

Perhaps Beethoven's greatest contribution to music was his transformation of the sonata form, although rivaling that was his re-envisioning of the symphony into a freer and more expressive form. Often in poor health, he died on March 26, 1827, legend has it during a wild thunderstorm, angry. His last piece of music was a string quintet in C Major, unfinished.

Concert Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

The year 1800 was a significant one in many ways. Aside from opening a new century, it was the year Napoleon established himself as First Consul, the German author Jean Paul wrote the novel Titan (after which Mahler later named his First Symphony), and the British astronomer William Herschel discovered infrared solar rays. It was also the year Beethoven brought out his First Symphony, a landmark event that not only initiated the great canon of nine from this composer, but was to have repercussions on the genre that reverberated across the span of the entire century: larger formal dimensions, an expanded time frame, bolder and more sophisticated harmonic adventures, increased emotional intensity, and an emphatic sense of force and aggressiveness. Not every one of these qualities evinced themselves in Beethoven's first effort, but, as Basil Lam notes, as a collective entity, these works "achieve a supremacy in the genre as beyond question as that of Shakespeare’s plays in drama."

The first great symphony of the nineteenth century did not arrive without a difficult birth. "Confused explosions," "barbarous dissonances," "a danger to the musical art" and "a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity" were some of the criticisms hurled at it. Nevertheless, they did nothing to diminish Beethoven’s reputation. On the same program with the premiere of the First Symphony (April 2, 1800 at Vienna’s Hofburgtheater) was Beethoven’s Septet, the work that was to earn him greater popularity than any other during his lifetime. By this time he had already been living in Vienna for eight years, was lionized as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser, and was much in demand as a teacher. Furthermore, he had amassed by now a considerable catalogue of works that included two piano concertos, six string quartets, ten piano sonatas, two cello sonatas, three violin sonatas and five string trios. Commissions for more works were pouring in. It was time to tackle the symphony.

Beethoven was thirty when his First Symphony was given its premiere, but ideas had been brewing for a long time before that, possibly as far back as 1785 when he was still in his teens. More definite evidence is found in the sketchbooks from the winter of 1794-95, but we do not know exactly when work actually commenced on the work posterity knows. In view of the date of the premiere (early 1800), 1799 is the probable year when most of the symphony was written.

If Beethoven’s First Symphony sounds tame compared to some of his later creations, we must remember to place it in the context of its time. The ambiguous, "off-key" opening was surely an affront to eighteenth-century sensibilities. For a work ostensibly in C major to begin with a chord twice removed from the home key (the dominant seventh of the sub-dominant, for the technical- minded), this opening sounded like a composer in open revolt. In fact, there is not a single C major chord in the entire slow introduction! The finale too begins with a slow introduction; it delivers a different kind of surprise. Here the harmony is "only" once removed from the home key. Following a stentorian unison G for full orchestra, violins tentatively creep up the G major scale, adding a note at a time, trying to get off the ground before the Allegro suddenly takes off in high spirits. The joke is so absurd that some early conductors omitted the introduction altogether, lest the audience laugh. The attentive listener, though, will note the structural importance of this passage, for every one of its fragments, especially the full scale, is incorporated in some way or another within the main body of the movement.

Then there is the matter of instrumentation. The winds are given special prominence, both in melodic roles (as in the first movement's genial second theme, passed back and forth between oboe and flute; or in the march-like tune of the finale's coda) and as a choir to offset the string sonority (the symphony's opening chords; the central Trio section of the third movement). One early critic wryly noted that the music sounded more like a wind band than an orchestra.

Another element that surely startled, amused, or just plain annoyed early audiences was the title of third movement, which Beethoven called a minuet, but which sounded like anything but. The dynamic, pounding, rapid triplet rhythm was eminently undanceable, at least as a "minuet" - that courtly, elegant dance of aristocratic rococo ballrooms. We recognize it today as the first of the scherzos that were to find their way into every Beethoven symphony (either in name or in spirit) except the Eighth, and into those by so many other composers throughout the century.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1800

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The explorer Alexander Mackenzie joins XY Fur Company to compete against the North West Company in fur trading.
  • After staging a coup d’état and installing himself as First Consul, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte engages in a series of conflicts (the Napoleonic Wars). He secures a dominant position in continental Europe and maintains a French sphere of influence through alliances and the appointment of friends and family to rule other European countries as French client states.
  • Washington, D.C. is established as the capital of the United States.
  • John Adams becomes the first president to live in the recently completed White House.
  • Spain cedes Louisiana back to France.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • Cornwall engineer Richard Trevithick, builds a high-pressure steam engine that will be used to power a road vehicle.
  • Dr Benjamin Waterhouse gives the first cowpox vaccination to his son in the effort to prevent smallpox in Trinity, Newfoundland.
  • The first electric battery is invented by Alessandro Volta. Volta proved that electricity could travel over wires. The word "volt" will be derived from his name.
  • German-born English astronomer William Herschel detects what later would become known as infra-red light in experiments with glass prisms and thermometers.
  • Robert Fulton tests a 20-foot model of his torpedo-armed submarine on the Seine. He makes two 20-minute dives himself.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • The Library of Congress is established with an allocation of $5,000.
  • Paintings : Portrait of Mme. Récamier by Jacques Louis David; Kirkstall Abbey and The White House at Chelsea by English painter Thomas Girtin, 25; The Family of Carlos IV and Witches' Sabbath by Francisco de Goya.
  • The U.S. Marine Band gives its first concert near the future site of the Lincoln Memorial.