Sunday, October 19, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #1

Today we will cover Beethoven's First Symphony, from a 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

I can see why music critics and historians consider Beethoven's First Symphony to be backward looking. There are times when you can hear Beethoven's stormy temper lurking in the First, but otherwise this symphony work sounds stylistically and structurally quite a bit like the music of Haydn or Mozart, key composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

Most music historians group Beethoven with Classical-era composers. But he wasn't really of the Classical era, nor was he truly of the Romantic era. He straddled both.

His work evolved from Classical in style into forerunner works of the Romantic era (the Third Symphony is arguably a proto-Romantic work), and then evolved into true Romantic works (the Fifth and the symphonies that followed). And of course his later works (e.g., the Late String Quartets) went far beyond the Romantic era, which were a hundred years ahead of their time in their experimention with atonality.

Listener Notes for Beethoven's First Symphony:
1) The gentle soft opening chords of this symphony is a shocking contrast to the familiar "dut-dut-dut dahhhhh" sledgehammer opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, isn't it?

2) The rapid eighth notes that begin at about 1:58 in the first movement sound like they could be the backdrop of any of Mozart's symphonies. But then Beethoven throws a wrench into our perceptions at the 5:52 mark of this movement, and he shows how this symphony differs from Classical era works. Mozart or Haydn would probably be about ready to wrap up the first movement at this point. But Beethoven? No way. He's just getting going. He modulates the key up a step, goes on to compose and extended bridge, and then returns to the main theme at the 7:20 mark.

3) Crappy trumpet part alert: After playing a few chords in the second minute of the first movement, and some desultory chords here and there (but mostly counting rests), the trumpets finally get to come in for real for a few arpeggios at the very end. Bor-ing! Not the kind of of symphony I would have liked to play as a teenage kid, that's for sure.

4) The entire second movement sounds exactly like something Haydn might write, particularly considering its brevity.

5) The fourth movement opens up with a really neat feature: the strings softly hint at the main theme, playing portions of an ascending scale, adding notes to them each time, and then letting loose with the main theme. What an interesting way to gently build tension! And Beethoven uses this effect a few more times in the movement to build tension elsewhere. Really creative.

6) Note at 5:38 in the fourth movement (right near the end), when the trumpets play a unison high note with the violins. Can you hear how the trumpets are quite a bit flat, and out of tune with the violins? It's always a bit annoying to hear a bad intonation mistake at the climax of a symphony--it kind of kills the moment.

In our next post, we'll cover the other work on this CD, Beethoven's Second Symphony.

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