A dominant seventh chord that made history: this is how Beethoven’s first symphony begins. Not with a bombastic gesture, not with a quiet start. Sure, we are still in the realm of the classical style with a slow overture followed by an Allegro in pure sonata form.
If we look at some of Mozart‘s symphonies, or Haydn‘s the typical opening consisted of a classical trumpet call: one or more full orchestra chords to catch the attention of the audience, to tell them that the show was about to begin. Beethoven starts disrupting the tradition right away.
What catches the audience’s attention is not so much a full chord but its harmonic gesture and the choice of its orchestration: woodwinds with strings in pizzicato underneath.
Beethoven ventured relatively late into the symphonic world: by the time he finished his first symphony, Mozart had already composed 36 of them, and Joseph Haydn nearly 20. He was far from the stylistic maturity of his predecessors.
Times were different though: Mozart had opened the way for freelance musicians and the need to write new works week by week to delight your employer was starting to fade.
Beethoven was interested in research: his main concern was to elaborate, rather than a writing technique, a compositional strategy that would be able to contain all the richness of his ideas within classical architecture.
As we know, in time he would push the boundaries of that very same architecture to the point of dismantling it.
Joseph Karl Stieler, portrait of L.v.Beethoven, 1820
L.v.Beethoven – Symphony n.1 analysis
Should you need a score you can find one here.
The first movement of this symphony is in classical sonata form: exposition, development, and recapitulation, all framed by a slow introduction and a coda.
The Introduction presents a certain novelty: the tonality is declared only at the end of a long introduction started by some indecisive modulations. What had to necessarily throw off the first listeners was not so much the length of this introduction (which is shorter than the one in Haydn’s latest symphonies) but the harmonic uncertainty: a dominant seventh chord in the unpredictable realm of F major; then G major seventh to A minor; and then D major 7 to G major. Mind you, the symphony is in C major. We haven’t touched the home key yet.
The following melodic section aims to connect the initial chords to the first theme and to prepare the home key of C major, heard for the first time on bar 6.
Beethoven goes through a few modulations, all close to C major: G major, dominant; A minor, the relative minor; F major, subdominant; D minor, the dominant of the dominant.
The last 5 bars of the Introduction see a dialogue in chords between strings and winds with modulations reaching up to F major and D minor.
A C major downward arpeggio of the horns ties to a G major upward scale of the strings, and a cascade of 4 notes take us back to C major and to the first theme of the Allegro.
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