may, 2020

Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven's Symphony No. 1

mayRidgefield Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven's Symphony No. 1VIRTUAL EVENT

ridgefield symphony orchestra

Event Details

During this time of extreme health concerns, resulting in restricted gatherings and cancelled performances, the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra invites you to enjoy a series of select past performances as we look forward to bringing you more great live music in the not too distant future!
And what better piece to start our series than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1!  This recording is from the RSO’s October 2018 concert at the Anne S. Richardson Auditorium at Ridgefield High School, under the direction of Maestro Yuga Cohler. Click the button below to listen to the piece and see the program notes for insight into Beethoven’s wonderful First Symphony.  Enjoy the RSO!


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Symphony No. 1, in C Major, Op. 21Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Andante cantabile con moto
Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace – Trio
Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace

With his First Symphony, Beethoven staked his claim as a rightful heir to the Classical symphonic tradition. After its premiere, at a typically gargantuan benefit concert in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 2 April 1800, the critic of the influential Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote of the work’s ‘considerable art, novelty and wealth of ideas’, adding that its only flaw was ‘the excessive use of wind instruments, so that there was more Harmonie [wind-band] than orchestral music as a whole’. He also complained of the poor quality of performance, especially in the slow movement, where rhythm and ensemble became sloppy. Unconfirmed reports suggest that other listeners were fazed by the off-key opening. But, unlike some of Beethoven’s radical early piano sonatas, the First Symphony, in the ceremonial, trumpet-and-drum key of C major, contained little to alarm an audience who by 1800 had absorbed the challenges of Haydn’s and Mozart’s late symphonies.

The young Beethoven had produced a stream of brilliant compositions for the piano during the 1790s. But he was understandably far more circumspect when it came to the string quartet and the symphony, the two most elevated Classical genres, and the ones in which Haydn, still at the height of his powers, especially excelled. Beethoven began to sketch a symphony in C major in 1795–6, then abandoned it when he struck an impasse with the finale. Some time in the autumn of 1799, while he was grappling with the Op. 18 String Quartets, he re-used part of the jettisoned first movement as the finale of a new symphony, and composed the other three movements from scratch. 

The First Symphony’s notoriously oblique beginning, with wind and pizzicato strings – a novel and striking colouring – proposing first F major, then G major (not the expected ‘home’ key of C major), has in fact even more daring precedents in the music of C. P. E. Bach. But Beethoven sustains the air of expectancy by continually avoiding the chord of C major in its strongest (‘root’) position; and there is an exhilarating sense of release when the introduction propels itself without a pause into the crisp, martial theme of the Allegro con brio. This speaks the language of the Classical comedy of manners as perfected by Haydn and Mozart, albeit slightly roughened by the young composer’s trademark trenchancy and the urgency of his musical argument. It is also more densely scored than anything in Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies, with the winds and strings often used in antiphonal blocks. Throughout the movement Beethoven makes inspired play with the three elements of the main theme: a descending scale flourish, peremptory dotted figures and an upwardly striding arpeggio. Boisterous conviviality is briefly threatened when the second theme – a graceful dialogue between flute and oboe underpinned by the first theme’s rising arpeggio – darkens mysteriously into the minor key in cellos and basses against a plangent oboe descant. The triumphant fortissimo recapitulation of the main theme is a characteristic Beethoven ploy, as is the flamboyant coda that resolves the movement’s harmonic tensions by distilling the main theme into its most elemental form.

For his first symphonic slow movement, Beethoven eschews the ruminative depths he had plumbed in the adagios of several early sonatas and chamber works and writes a graceful, pawky F major Andante cantabile con moto that initially pretends to be a fugue. (The musicologist Donald Francis Tovey and others have pointed out the music’s kinship with the playful, fugally inclined Andante of Beethoven’s contemporary C minor String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 4.) At the start of the recapitulation Beethoven delightfully enriches the fugal weave with a skittish new counter-melody. The solemn pianissimo drum rhythms that underpin the closing theme become more assertive in the development, which slews round into the rich and remote-sounding key of D flat major.

Although Beethoven dubbed the third movement ‘Menuetto’ – either from convention, or with his tongue in his cheek – what he wrote was a scherzo of coursing energy and explosive dynamic contrasts, a natural consequence of Haydn’s rude shake-up of the traditional minuet in his ‘Surprise’ Symphony and the first and last of his Op. 76 String Quartets. In the second half Beethoven wrenches the music into D flat major (shades here of the second movement) before returning to the home key via a hushed, tense sequence of modulations. 

From its tiny, stuttering introduction – the kind of ‘blurt-it-out-then’ joke Haydn liked to reserve for his codas – to the unscheduled last-minute entrance of a march for toy soldiers, the Finale is one of Beethoven’s most teasingly amusing creations. His main agent of comic suspense and subversion is the rising scale which the violins initially have such difficulty completing. In the development this propels the music to the surprise key of B flat for a bout of mock-heroics, before being turned upside down in a jousting match for first and second violins. Then, just as the woodwind are engineering a poised, Mozartian lead back to the recapitulation, the irrepressible agent provocateur scampers in before we realize it, with a gleeful irreverence.
Program notes © Richard Wigmore


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