Written by Ronald Comber

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven’s First Symphony, written very probably in 1799, is a work grounded firmly in the eighteenth century, and yet it bears the seeds of the musical revolution to come. At the time of its composition, the symphonic ideal had been clearly defined by the later works of Mozart, and perhaps more importantly, Haydn. Beethoven was very much influenced by Haydn’s music, although his attempts at studying with the great man in 1792 had been unsuccessful, to say the least.

At the premiere of the First Symphony on April 2, 1800 critics and audience alike were made aware of a new force in the musical scene, but on the whole they found the vitality of Beethoven’s writing to be too challenging. Soon enough, however, Beethoven’s comparatively modest early innovations were generally accepted, as was shown in the critics’ hostility to his later works, when they would invariably bemoan the lost glories of the First Symphony.

The Symphony is in the proper four movements. The first shows interesting touches that already mark Beethoven’s personal style. The very first chord, an unprepared (and unexpected) minor seventh, breaks with tradition, and throughout, the characteristic wind writing and the closely interwoven thematic structure suggest the shape of things to come. The second movement has been justly famous from its first performance for its simple purity and its immaculate part writing. Beethoven’s sense of drama, so prominent in his later works, here makes its first subtle appearance.

The Minuet, obeying all the classical rules, nonetheless is a forerunner of the scherzos to come. Besides moving at a fair pace, it abounds in intriguing cross-rhythms. The Trio is downright capricious. The Finale starts with a bang, then after several tentative attempts, accelerates into a spirited Allegro. Only slightly more conservative than his later works, the movement concludes the symphony in a mood of dapper good humour.

Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19
Ludwig van Beethoven

The Second Piano Concerto, Op.19, completed in its published form in 1795, is actually an earlier work than the First Concerto (its numerical position is only derived from the order of publication), but for those with a turn for accuracy, it can still be called the Second, as there is yet an earlier piano concerto, which is not, alas, in the repertoire.

Beethoven seems not to have cared much for the Second Piano Concerto, particularly after he had started to develop his inimitable personal style, around the year 1800. Of all his early major works, the Second is the most actively Mozartian in spirit, and it is certainly the most delicate in texture. When we compare it to the powerful evocations of the third concerto, started in 1800, we can see why Beethoven would tend to dismiss it as an unsuccessful work. Luckily, we are not required to judge the merits of a composition by its author’s standards, but only as an entity, alone. The Second Piano Concerto is a fine specimen of Classical music; a worthy addition to the repertoire of Mozart and Haydn.

The work is in three movements. The first, an Allegro con brio, is remarkable both for its elegance and for its surprisingly strict adherence to Mozart’s conceptions of piano technique. The second movement, an Adagio, already bears the marks of Beethoven’s individual style. The timeless, floating solo voice combined with the metric drive of the accompanying orchestra, is one of Beethoven’s most delicious creations. The third movement, a Rondo, provides an effervescent conclusion to an altogether charming work.

Concerto No.4 in G Major for Piano & Orchestra, Op.58
Ludwig van Beethoven

The Fourth Piano Concerto appears to have had its provenance in the spring of 1805. Sketches appear in the midst of Beethoven’s rough preparatory work for Leonora (the opera later renamed Fidelio). Slightly later, in the middle of his sketches for the Fifth Symphony, related material for the Concerto’s first movement appears. Much, incidentally, has been made of this by the more romantically inclined historians. The relation between the “knocking” theme of the Fifth Symphony and the similar material used in the concerto seems to suggest to some an emotional link that probably isn’t there. As Schenker said, “Was this another door upon which Fate knocked or was someone else knocking at the same door?” Beethoven probably had two ideas simultaneously from the same germ of inspiration. Beethoven completed the concerto in July 1806, and premiered it in March 1807 in one of those marathon concerts so popular at the time. A popular triumph, the Fourth Piano Concerto even pleased the critics.

The first movement opens surprisingly with the piano playing the principal theme, which, after repetition by the orchestra, gives way to the usual orchestral tutti. Dramatic integrity is maintained throughout the movement as the emotional direction of the music is passed between soloist and orchestra, with never a sense of having arrived at a particular state of mind. The second movement, one of Beethoven’s most original and striking creations, demonstrates the effective use of dialogue writing. The orchestra’s dramatic utterances are invariably answered by the contemplative and lyrical replies of the piano. The Finale appears to grow directly out of the transitional conclusion to the slow movement. Perhaps the most glamorous Rondo of Beethoven’s career, the work alternates between driving rhythms and lofty cantilena passages. It is a marvel of balance and form.