Beethoven can provoke extremes of behavior. In my college years, I used to attend a yearly gathering of music faculty and students that always would deteriorate into a Beethoven symphony brag-fest. It would start with an alpha-type professor demonstrating his knowledge of the Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, singing a secondary theme from an inner movement or tossing out the opus number, date of its premiere and a description of the composer’s mental state at the time.
This would be followed by the chest-thumping of another faculty member, who would then demonstrate his knowledge of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. And so it went with the music faculty drinking cheap beer and delving into Beethoven’ symphonies 2, 4 and 8. It was considered bad form to address symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 because, as one of the faculty pointed out, “They’re played to death. Everybody knows them.”
Oddly, Beethoven’s First Symphony (which the CSO will perform May 8-10) was never mentioned — neither by faculty or students. Thinking it was really a Haydn’s symphony in disguise, I never bothered to listen to it seriously until I was receiving regular mailings from AARP. I figured I’d be better off with something composed by a middle-aged Haydn than a young Beethoven.
That was a mistake. Yes, Beethoven’s First Symphony is heavily influenced by Haydn and Mozart, but it’s not a product of Beethoven’s adolescence. He was a fully formed man of 30 when it had its premiere. While he would continue to develop as a composer through his middle and late periods, he already had a distinctive voice. His first symphony, which premiered in 1800 in Vienna, is unmistakably Beethoven, and very good Beethoven.
The concert in which the work bowed also featured his second piano concerto, his septet (a six-movement work for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass), a Mozart symphony and a selection from Haydn’s The Creation. The big three — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven on the same program — that audience got its money’s worth.
Haydn, generally considered the father of the symphonic form, lived until 1809, but he composed the last of his 100-plus symphonies by 1795. He then applied himself to writing The Creation. Mozart, no slouch when it came to the writing of symphonies, composed 41 of them over his short life, which ended in 1791. Numerous composers wrote symphonies in the few years between the last of Haydn’s and that first one of Beethoven. But nowadays works by Pleyel, Krommer and others of that time rarely wind up on concert programs.
Beethoven, though, is always with us, and in his first symphony are the seeds of all that will follow. It’s all there: how he develops his musical ideas, the way he moves from one key to another and — most distinguishing — the emotional depth that his music possesses. It’s not as obvious to the listener as in his Eroica (his third symphony) or the other masterpieces of his middle period. But in his first symphony are clear indications of what is to come — works that changed music and our expectations of what music could be.
Chicago-based writer Jack Zimmerman has authored a couple of novels, countless newspaper columns and was the 2012 recipient of the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award. He currently works as subscriber relations manager for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
VIDEO: Leonard Bernstein leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, via YouTube: