The First Steps of a Symphonic Revolutionary

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C Major (1800)

“There is something revolutionary in that music!”1
— Holy Roman Emperor Francis II on Beethoven’s music, c. late 1790s or early 1800s

This alleged remark by the reactionary Francis II on Beethoven’s music seems strange, coming as it does before Beethoven’s “Heroic Period” of the Third Symphony and thereafter. In the mainstream history of Beethoven, his early works are more classical in style, hewing close to Mozart and (especially) Haydn. A work such as his first symphony, his first venture into writing sonata form with a full symphony displays caution and a more conservative mode. This is, in part, due to our ears knowing Beethoven’s later symphonies. As scholar Donald Tovey describes, “The caution which seems so obvious to us was not noticed by his contemporary critics.”2 Indeed, contemporary critics highlighted virtually every one of Beethoven’s deviations from classical norms – from beginning his symphony in the wrong key to his overuse of the wind section, which can be heard in the first audio excerpt. What these criticisms clued into was that in his First Symphony, Beethoven was already transgressing his era’s conventional symphonic rhetoric. These transgressions, while only the beginning for Beethoven, sought a new manner of expression and represent an introduction to the idea of Beethoven as a promethean figure. This symphony is a harbinger of who Beethoven was and where he intended to go with his music.

Portrait of Beethoven as a young man.
Portrait of Beethoven (1800), engraved by Johann Neidl, based on a drawing by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser von Treuberg.
Title page to the first edition of Beethoven’s First Symphony. Beethoven’s name is given as “Louis van Beethoven.”
Title page to the first edition of Beethoven’s First Symphony (Vienna: Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, 1800).
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1, I: Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
The Cleveland Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf
Archival Recording: Severance Hall, March 15, 1979

Leinsdorf guest conducting the Orchestra. He is making a gesture with his left thumb and forefinger to emphasize the tapering of a musical phrase.
Erich Leinsdorf’s tenure as the Orchestra’s young third music director was brief, in part due to his being drafted into the armed forces during the Second World War. However, beginning in the 1970s, Leinsdorf returned to the Orchestra, now older and more experienced, as a frequent guest conductor. Although practiced in a wide variety of repertoire, Leinsdorf’s guest appearances with the Orchestra frequently featured works by Beethoven, such as this excerpt from a 1979 appearance. Photograph by Peter Hastings, 1979. Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

The third movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony offers one example of his incipient drive to push beyond the boundaries of convention. In the classical symphony before Beethoven, the third movement was often a minuet and trio. The minuet was a courtly, stately dance generally in a slower tempo with a typical triple meter. In the middle of the movement was the trio, a lighter and often airier section featuring a change in key and instrumentation. Haydn’s symphonies had minuets, Mozart’s symphonies had minuets, and none of Beethoven’s had them – save the first, but in name only. Beethoven’s minuet is fast — far too fast to dance a minuet to. The stately unfolding of a triple is replaced by a frenetic rush and the usual pattern of a strong first beat followed by two weaker ones is overcome by what feels like a torrent of only strong beats. The music’s mood is mercurial, with quicksilver changes in dynamics and texture.

The contrasting trio section’s attempt at a pastoral tone ultimately fails to subdue the movement’s immense forward momentum, and its gentle, repeated chords build to a triumphant finish. This movement is not a minuet, but something else altogether – a proto-scherzo. The term “scherzo” (Italian for “joke”) denoted a light-hearted piece of music with a quick tempo in triple meter. Although the scherzo predates Beethoven, it was Beethoven who seized the potential of including such a form in the symphony. Adaptable for comedy or terror, Beethoven’s scherzo would become integral parts of his later symphonies and would define the genre for the rest of the century.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1, III: Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace (excerpt)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski
Recorded December 28, 1941, Released Columbia Records, 1943.

Rodzinski is seated and holding a cigarette holder in his mouth while he contemplates the playback of a prospective recording by The Cleveland Orchestra. A small score is open in front of him.
This recording of the minuet section of the movement is taken from one of the Orchestra’s earlier commercial recordings and features as conductor Artur Rodzinski, the Orchestra’s second music director. Rodzinski, known primarily for his skill in the romantic and operatic repertoires, did not conduct a great deal of classical-era music during his tenure. Indeed, his 1943 Columbia recording of Beethoven’s first symphony was the only classical-era work he recorded with the Orchestra. This photo is of him and Moses Smith, a Columbia Records producer, listening to the playback of a prospective recording. Photographer unknown, 1939. Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

This recording of the trio section of the movement is taken from a commercial recording of Lorin Maazel’s 1979 Beethoven Cycle. Lorin Maazel was the Orchestra’s fifth music director (1970-1982) and was particularly fond of Beethoven. This, as well as Maazel’s idiosyncratic nature, are evidenced by Maazel’s liner notes to the cycle, which described Beethoven as “my friend.”

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1, III: Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace (excerpt)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel
Recorded April 29, 1978, Released CBS Masterworks, 1979.
Maazel is seated and smiling at the camera while behind him, to the left, is a bust of Beethoven.
This photograph shows Maazel (c. mid-1990s) posing with a bust of Beethoven. Photograph by Karen Meyers, date unknown.

video preview image of Franz Welser-Möst

However, it is the symphony’s fourth and final movement that most strongly foreshadows Beethoven’s later symphonies. Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford suggests that the fourth movement, which Beethoven composed last, “became the heaviest and most serious” and “pointed in the direction Beethoven was to pursue.”3 Music Director Franz Welser-Möst expands on this idea by highlighting how the movement grows from its unusual opening – a hesitant, slowly building upward scale in the violins. It is this “spark” from which the movement’s first theme emerges and infuses the entire movement.

1 Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: A Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 138.
2 Donald Francis Tovey, Symphonies and Other Orchestral Works: Selections from Essays in Musical Analysis (London: Oxford University Press, 1981), 36.
3 Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 244.

Alexander Lawler
Alexander Lawler is a Historical Musicology PhD student at Case Western Reserve University. This is his third year working in the Orchestra’s Archives, having previously written “From the Archives” online essays (2015-2016) and designed a photo digitization and metadata project (2016-2017).

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