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Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. The piece was published in 1801 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel of Leipzig. It is unknown exactly when Beethoven finished writing this work, but sketches of the finale were found from 1795.
The symphony is clearly indebted to Beethoven's predecessors, particularly his teacher Joseph Haydn as well as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but nonetheless has characteristics that mark it uniquely as Beethoven's work, notably the frequent use of sforzandi and the prominent, more independent use of wind instruments. Sketches for the finale are found among the exercises Beethoven wrote while studying counterpoint under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger in the spring of 1787.
The premiere took place on 2 April 1800 at the K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg in Vienna. The concert program also included his Septet and Piano Concerto No. 2, as well as a symphony by Mozart, and an aria and a duet from Haydn's oratorio The Creation. This concert effectively served to announce Beethoven's talents to Vienna.
The clarinet parts are commonly played on B♭ clarinet, as C and D clarinets are no longer widely used. However, there is some controversy over whether they should be played on E♭ instruments instead. The E♭ clarinet's timbre is much closer to that of the C and D clarinets than that of the warmer-sounding B♭ clarinet.
There are 4 movements:
Its duration is approximately 25 minutes.
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The beginning of the twelve-bar introduction of the first movement is sometimes considered a "musical joke". For example, the English musicologist Donald Tovey has called this work "a comedy of manners". In fact, Symphony No. 1 can be regarded as a result of Beethoven's bold musical experimentation and advancement which he presents five years after Haydn's last symphony and twelve years after Mozart's final Jupiter Symphony: Unusually, Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 starts with a sequence of repeatedly accentuated dominant-tonic chord sequences, however, in the "wrong" key and untouching and leading away from the tonic, so that the listener only gradually realizes the real key (or home key) of the symphony.
In correlation to the tradition, however, the first movement is composed exemplarily in sonata form. Here, as a new element, Beethoven uses the more lyrical second subject to display and intertwine the woodwind with the string instruments. The development is elaborate and mainly based on the first subject of the movement and explores a long harmonic progression (starting from A major, reaching E-flat major, passing E major at the end); it also refines the juxtaposition and combination of the orchestral instruments (woodwinds and strings); the recapitulation is almost coherent with the exposition; the coda reminisces the motivic work of the development before it closes the movement with strongly repeated chords played by the whole orchestra.
Due to Beethoven's metronome markings and the addition of the indication of con moto ("with momentum"), the Andante (in F major, the subdominant of the symphony's home key) of the second movement is played considerably faster than the general concept of that tempo. In contrast to the tradition, Beethoven uses the entire instrumentation of the orchestra and, consequently, displays a vast spectrum of sound in this movement which, as well, is composed in sonata form.
The third movement is on the one hand remarkable, because, although it is indicated as Menuetto, it is marked Allegro molto e vivace and, consequently, to be played so fast that it is essentially a Scherzo – a description mostly used after Beethoven's first symphony. Secondly, as an inherent element of the scherzo, it does not customarily display new melodies or motives, but instead uses the musical scales and triads from the first movement as motivic material which render this movement's momentum and wit.
The finale opens with another introduction consisting only of scale fragments played slowly by the first violins alone (an unusual effect) beginning on G and gradually adding more notes. After finally reaching an F, outlining a dominant seventh chord in C major, the real start of the finale Allegro molto e vivace begins in C major with a theme taken directly from the 4th movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G major. Composed again in a solid sonata form, Beethoven uses the scale as the prevailing motivic element in this movement which, by character, pays most of all tribute to the customary finale established by Haydn in the preceding decades.
The musical form is in accordance with the established composing tradition. Musical content, instrumentation as well as tempi, is unusual—if not revolutionary—in its use for a symphonic work of Beethoven's time. Therefore, Beethoven introduced himself with this work uniquely and boldly as an advancing symphonic composer and stood true to this statement throughout his compositional life.