I have mentioned several times a particular cassette tape I made some 4 decades ago. Listening to it was a kind of happiness drug. On it, I had four selections: Beethoven’s First Symphony, the Bizet Symphony in C, the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I’ve posted the Bizet and Prokofiev symphonies. Moving toward completeness in talking about that cassette (!), today I would like to offer up the Beethoven First Symphony. (Appalachian Spring will be forthcoming.)

Beethoven’s First Symphony is a happy work.

Beethoven seems to have taken his time with this first symphony, working on it between 1795 and 1800. The work was premiered on April 2, 1800—just 218 years ago!—and was, for all intents, Beethoven’s inaugural concert in Vienna, the first time that the sophisticated Viennese would hear him. The concert took place in the illustrious Burgtheater (see photo).

The work is in four movements:

1st movt 0:00 Some people regard the first twelve measures as a bit of a joke because Beethoven is delaying the actual start of the piece until 1:36. In this introduction, Beethoven utilizes chords that take the listener further and further away from where he ultimately is heading—C Major—hence, the “joke.”

2nd movt 9:19 Also unusual for the time, Beethoven uses the full orchestra for the second movement. Up to his time, smaller forces had been used for the more laid-back second movement. Not that this movement is loud or over-bearing—it definitely is not—but to achieve the lyrical and lilting goal he had in mind, Beethoven used the full orchestra.

3rd movt 16:15 There is a lot of back-and-forth “conversation” going on in this movement between different groups of instruments. Listening here is like eavesdropping.

4th movt 20:04 The opening of the last movement is the most unusual facet of this symphony. Again, as in the first movement, Beethoven starts out by TEASING the listener: after an opening dominant chord–which is begging for a tonic resolution, but which Beethoven does not supply—after this loud opening exclamation, Beethoven writes a series of tentative, softly rising phrases: first G-A-B, then G-A-B-C, then G-A-B-C-D, then G-A-B-C-D-E, then G-A-B-C-D-E-F, and then FINALLY, a whole octave of notes G to G followed by the tonic resolution we’ve been waiting for. It’s real genius.

There are a number of credible video performances of this symphony on YouTube—more than one by Bernstein, as well as by Karajan, Thielemann, Solti, Jarvi, and others. While I always prefer to use performances that can be watched and appreciated as listening links, I like the performance by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra so much that I am using this as our listening link. Not only has the recorded sound (from 1964) stood up very well, but Szell is masterly with his tempos, never too fast or too slow.

I think if you were not in a happy mood before listening to this work, you will be afterwards. Such is the power of music.

Pictures are of the Burgtheater in Vienna, where this symphony was first performed, and conductor George Szell.

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