The vision of Count Waldstein whereby the young Beethoven would receive “Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands” in Vienna is as famous as it is remarkable. It assumes the Classical triumvirate we now take for granted, although Beethoven had composed very few major works by that date. It is noteworthy that these immense expectations did not alarm Beethoven in the slightest; his presence in Vienna, initially as a brilliant piano virtuoso in aristocratic circles, was a commanding one from the very start, revealing a personality that pursued its own goals and ideals without feeling overshadowed by its illustrious predecessors. In many ways, Beethoven’s First Symphony is a testimony to this self-confidence. It begins with a slow introduction, which conceals its home key from the first dissonant chord to the entry of the Allegro; Beethoven is not attracting attention, he is assuming it. The Allegro is a con brio whose opening theme, springy and electrifying, strikes the characteristic Beethoven tone while letting the listener know, with its consciously planned design and its witty play on individual motifs, that listening with one ear will not be allowed. The Minuet, actually a scherzo and not at all aristocratic either, is a bundle of energy, elemental force expressed through the medium of a simple ascending scale in a persistent iambic rhythm. More traditional form is taken by the serenely graceful Andante and the Finale, the first and last time Beethoven ends a symphony in an exuberant, unenigmatic manner. The way he starts the last movement is clever: after a solemn chord, violins ascend the scale step by step, then romp away in a musical frolic. Berlioz described this Finale as “child’s play” – easy to say when you know the later symphonies. After all, the First is just the first step in a lifetime’s adventure.
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