Beethoven Symphony Basics at ESM

Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1800)

The Basics

General Information

Composition dates: 1799-1800; sketches as early as 1796.  

Dedication: Baron Gottfried van Swieten.  Initially intended dedicatee was Elector Maximilian Franz of Bonn who died 26 July 1801, before the symphony was published. 

Instrumentation: Strings, 2 Fl, 2 Ob, 2 Cl, 2 Bsn, 2 Hn, 2 Tr, Timp.

First performance: 2 April 1800, Akademie at Vienna Burgtheater.  

Orchestra size for first or early performance: 8+8.4.3-4.5/single winds (estimate).

Autograph Score: Not extant.

First published parts: Late 1801, Hoffmeister & Kühnel, Leipzig. 

First published score: 1820, Simrock. 


Movements (Tempos. Key. Form.)

I. Adagio molto—Allegro con brio (MM=88—112). C Major. Sonata-Allegro (w/slow Intro.).

II. Andante cantabile con moto (MM=120). F Major (IV). Sonata-Allegro.

III. Menuetto. Allegro molto e vivace (MM=108). C major.  Scherzo/Trio (ternary).

IV. Adagio—Allegro molto e vivace (MM=63—88). C major. Sonata-Allegro (w/slow Intro.).


Significance and Structure

Beethoven departed his hometown of Bonn for Vienna in 1792 with a now-famous note written by Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, one of Beethoven’s earliest and most devoted admirers, stating that Beethoven was to “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” This letter is discussed at length in the “Beethoven’s Words” essay below, but it underscores Beethoven’s identity as heir to a specific musical tradition. In his First Symphony, Beethoven navigated a delicate balance between celebrating that symphony inheritance and finding his own voice. 

As described in the earlier essay “The Symphony in the Late Eighteenth Century,” by the end of the eighteenth century, the symphony was a codified genre full of expectations and conventions. Like other multi-movement works of the time, the (commonly) four movements of a symphony were characterized by different topoi—musical topics—woven into conventional musical structures, that created a dramatic journey to the overall work.  It was written for an orchestra conventionally made up of pairs of winds, timpani, and four string sections. (See the essay Beethoven’s Orchestra above.)  Much of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 is in line with this tradition, with classical topoi, conventional musical forms, a typical size orchestra, and elements of a “public style” present throughout the piece. Beneath the surface, however, many compositional choices distinct to Beethoven’s own voice shine through. For instance, while Beethoven used a conventional orchestra size in his First Symphony, the somewhat significant use of the Harmonie—wind ensemble—drew the attention of critics, as is discussed in the essay “Others’ Words” below. Beethoven used traditional forms for each movement (sonata form for movements 1, 2, and 4, and the ternary minuet dance form for movement 3), but the speed, style, and driving energy of the third movement give it a Beethoven twist: rather than a stately minuet, it is a rousing scherzo, playing on our expectations of tempo, meter, and phrase length.

Beethoven was rising quickly in the musical scene of Vienna after his arrival in 1792. He made steady progress as a pianist and composer and had acquired an impressive reputation for piano improvisations. While his composing was well-received, Beethoven had focused on solo and chamber works and had not yet ventured into the more “public” genre of the symphony. There are sketches for a symphonic composition as early as 1796, but the First Symphony’s premiere performance occurred on April 2, 1800, in an Akademie (public concert in 18th-century Vienna) organized by the composer.  Beethoven’s 1800 Akademie program included movements from Haydn’s Creation and a Mozart symphony along with several original compositions and a piano improvisation, concluding with the premiere of the Symphony No. 1. In this programming, Beethoven effectively presented a tribute to the defining figures of the Classical era while staking claim to his own place in a new century of music.  It juxtaposed the inherited styles of his predecessors and models to his own musical personality, particularly the prominent use of the Harmonie wind instruments and the third movement’s scherzo derivation from minuet, to those of the earlier symphonic masters, thereby setting Beethoven’s symphony apart. This seems to have been recognized by a reviewer of the Akademie in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, who called it “the most interesting public concert for a long time.” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 29.) 

[We refer the reader to the following recording for the ensuing discussion: Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conducting. 1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement.]

Beethoven’s own musical personality is abundantly clear from the First Symphony’s opening gestures. As was common in Classical symphonies set in a major key, the first movement opens with a slow introduction, in this case marked Adagio molto (very slowly). However, while an audience would reasonably expect a symphony in the key of C major to begin with a C major chord, the first chord is instead a C major chord with an added pitch of B-flat, creating a dissonance that must resolve to F major—the wrong key, effectively disorienting the listener in order to gradually guide our way “home” to C major by the end of the slow introduction (0:31-1:11) The main part of the movement is marked Allegro con brio (brisk, with vigor), and proceeds in an exciting if conventional fashion, with an energetic first theme showcasing the violins (1:11-1:34), followed by a lyrical second theme for the winds (1:56-2:13). In the development section (4:48-6:00)—the area where the opening themes and keys are broken down and explored—Beethoven sticks closely to Mozart’s developmental techniques, fragmenting the first theme and moving harmonically around the circle of fifths. As Elaine Sisman points out, the use of an ascending perfect fourth in the first theme, the harmonic plan (backwards around the circle of fifths) of the development section, and the use of C minor just after the second theme all allude to Mozart’s own last C major Symphony, No. 41, further grounding Beethoven in the prevailing symphony tradition (Sisman, 54-5). 

The second movement’s triple meter and Andante cantabile con moto tempo (relaxed moderate tempo, singing fashion, with motion) provide the feel of a relaxed yet stately dance. As a result, the second movement resembles a minuet (certainly more than the sprightly third movement, actually labeled Menuetto), and provides respite from the bombastic fortissimo ending of the first movement. Violin II opens the second movement with a pianissimo statement of the first theme, (0:00-0:38) which is treated imitatively. Beethoven’s contrapuntal writing may reflect the influence of predecessors such as Haydn, who was a master of counterpoint and from whom Beethoven studied, and Mozart, whose last movement of the C major Symphony No. 41, mentioned before as a model, displays some of the most famous invertible counterpoint of the Classical era. Following a second theme in the expected dominant of C major, the entrance of the timpani signals the beginning of a playful closing theme (3:39-4:02). The timpani had been growing in importance for orchestral writing for some time, but Beethoven’s extensive use of its dotted rhythm, reminiscent of military music, is still unusual for a slow movement, and is another example of his distinctive voice in this work. 

The third movement of the First Symphony contains Beethoven’s most prominent individual voice in the scope of the history of the symphony, and deviation from the Haydn-Mozart tradition.  Although labeled minuet, it is a bona fide “scherzo” (“joke”) movement demonstrating the principal qualities of such a movement, which deviate from the audience expectations of the stately minuet: the tempo, marked Allegro molto e vivace (very brisk and lively) at MM=108 per bar, is much too fast to dance to, accents on beats other than one displace the triple meter, and additional bars upset the expected eight- or twelve-measure phrase lengths. Such thwarting of the expectations of audiences regarding the minuet dance, the most expectation-driven movement in the instrumental cycle of movements, has its roots in some of the string quartets of Haydn.  But here Beethoven chooses to throw a curve at his listeners in the more public, generally less sophisticated symphony genre, creating for the audience a profound sense of irony. This ironic treatment of the heretofore rather simplistic and galant dance movement stems from Beethoven’s own desire to add compositional weight and dramatic push to the end of the piece, signaling a transition point between Classical and Romantic symphonies by establishing a structural model for the next generations of symphonic composers. 

Continuing his desire to push to the end, the First Symphony’s final movement opens with what Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood considers to be another “little masterpiece of comedy” which deviates from the Haydn/Mozart tradition (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 25): a timid ascension up the scale starting on the pitch G in opening Adagio (slow) introduction (0:00-0:21). The first violins slowly creep up from the G by a few notes, only to return back to the G and creep up to one higher pitch the next time. The first violins try to stuff more and more pitches into each measure, and yet they never reach up to a full octave, instead stalling on the pitch F. This five-measure introduction, deviating from tradition in that Haydn and Mozart did not put slow introductions onto finale movements, begins piano but gains energy through a crescendo, only to suddenly return to piano for a very anticlimactic end. Like the first movement’s opening chords, the scale creates tonal ambiguity by “playing with” the function of a dominant chord: only when the F is emphasized does the listener recognize that the music is leading not to the key of G, but to the key of C. Returning to the style of his predecessors, the movement proceeds in sonata form, with the hesitant scalar motion from the introduction transformed into the energetic central motive of the entire movement.  

With the Symphony No. 1 in C, Beethoven firmly establishes himself into the tradition of the Classical symphonic style of his predecessors and idols Haydn and Mozart. And yet his own voice shines through, particularly in the ways he uses tricks and turns in the last two movements.  Indeed, these qualities drew the attention and admiration of the audience of the April 2, 1800 Akademie, and of performances that followed, introducing to concert-goers the creative, ironic, and unique mind of Vienna’s newest symphonic composer. But perhaps it is also fair to surmise that they could scarcely have predicted what was to come.  

Contributors: JC, LB, MC, MCho, MER


Beethoven’s Words

“Dear Beethoven!  You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. . . . With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.Inscription to Beethoven by Count Ferdinand Waldstein, dated October 29, 1792, in an album taken by the composer to Vienna.  (Italics are underlined in original.)


We cannot truly know how Beethoven felt about the expectations being placed on his shoulders regarding symphony composing as he moved to Vienna, because the composer has not left us any of his  own words regarding his first symphony, but perhaps we can gain insight into his frame of mind surrounding the First Symphony by revisiting this famous quote penned by Count Waldstein.  The above discussion of the details and reception of the First Symphony seems to suggest that he was not only aware of these expectations, but also fully intended to fulfill the prophecy laid out by Waldstein.   

Count Ferdinand Waldstein came to Bonn from Vienna in 1788 and developed a close relationship with Beethoven; in 1791 Beethoven ghost-wrote the Ritterballett (WoO1), attributed to the count, and in 1792 composed a set of piano variations for four hands on a theme by Waldstein.  The Count was one of Beethoven’s earliest patrons and the one that encouraged the young composer to go to Vienna and study with Haydn. It is clear that Beethoven valued his kinship with the Count; in 1805 he dedicated his Piano Sonata No. 21 Op. 53, known as the Waldstein Sonata, to his friend. 

It is important to note that the italics in the quote—Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands—were underlined by Waldstein in the autograph. Some readings of the quote interpret Waldstein as perhaps slighting Haydn, but as Elaine Sisman points out, Waldstein and Beethoven were relatively close in age (30 and 22 respectively), while Haydn was already in his sixties, well-established, and referred to as the father of the symphony. Waldstein is not downplaying the importance of Haydn, but simply implying that a new talent—Beethoven—will be the one to carry instrumental music into the future.  Both Mozart and Haydn were of an earlier generation, with their symphonies seen as the summa works of that generation. 

With the completion of his First Symphony in 1800, Beethoven’s recognition of Mozart’s “spirit”  and Haydn’s skill is clearly detected through the similarities between it and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 97, both also in C major, thereby ensuring popular success of his symphonic debut. Beethoven used the conventional symphonic form of the eighteenth century: the first, second, and fourth movements follow sonata-allegro form, while the third dance movement is a menuetto and trio. Of particular note are the extensive use of scale passages and extended codas in the fourth movements of Beethoven’s First Symphony and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41. Elaine Sisman also recalls similarities between Beethoven’s First Symphony and Haydn’s Symphony No.97:  first-movement introductions that lay out long-range tonal plans, recurring chord progressions throughout, and a direct transition from the slow to very fast tempi. 

The structural and formal similarities between Beethoven’s First Symphony and similar works from Haydn and Mozart offer a valuable glimpse at Beethoven’s pragmatic side along with his ties to symphonic tradition. Obviously, Beethoven was aware of his audience and the expectations of others, and he carefully constructed a symphony firmly within the guidelines set by those before him, yet included moments where his own voice shines through. Waldstein’s words echo throughout the work, and Beethoven proved that he is worthy of the responsibility passed on to him. 

Contributors: EH, JF, MER


Others’ Words 

“. . . one of his symphonies was performed in which there is considerable art, novelty and a wealth of ideas. The only flaw was that the harmonie [winds] were used too much, so that there was more Harmoniemusik than orchestral music as a whole.”  Correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (AMZ) regarding the April 2, 1800 premiere of Symphony No. 1.  


To understand this criticism of Beethoven’s First Symphony, we must first contextualize what the term Harmoniemusik meant in Vienna and its surroundings at the turn of the 19th century.  Originally, a Harmonie ensemble consisted of a pair of horns, with a pair of bassoons below and a pair of oboes or clarinets above.  By the 1780s, the standard ensemble consisted of pairs of all four instruments, forming an octet.  This ensemble was first introduced to central Europe around 1776.  In 1782, a Viennese tradition was initiated when Emperor Joseph employed a full Harmonie of the finest professional wind musicians.  The wind bands were primarily used for courtly functions, including  entertainment at court events, balls, hunting parties, and accompanying military reviews, but they also performed in public and private concerts.  Classical composers such Mozart and the lesser-known Francesco Antonio Rosetti composed music specifically for the octet.  Here is an example of a partita by Rosetti:  Rosetti: Partita in E-flat Major (Amphion Wind Oetingen-Wallerstein Harmonie EnsembleEnsemble)Additionally, publishers arranged operas, songs, symphonies, and solo sonatas for wind ensembles.  Here is a famous image of the Oetingen-Wallerstein Harmonie ensemble for which Rosetti composed his music.  Rosetti is playing the double bass.  (See

Simultaneous to the development of courtly Harmonie ensembles, symphonic music at these same courts and in various emerging public concert series was evolving to include the expanded winds. (See the above essay Beethoven’s Orchestra.”)  In his London symphonies of the 1790s, Joseph Haydn crystallized the wind section of the orchestra that would later be used by Beethoven.  By 1800, the standard orchestra included pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, the same complement employed by Beethoven in his First Symphony.  

If the number and types of instruments employed by Beethoven reflected the Haydn model, Beethoven’s critic must have taken issue not with which wind instruments were used, but how and to what extent they were used.  After all, the distinction made was between “Harmoniemusik” and “orchestral music.”  Certain expectations existed about where and how the wind instruments would be used in a four-movement symphony.  Beethoven’s most important predecessors Haydn and Mozart used the winds consistently and most prominently in the following ways:  First, to add a folksy character, especially in Ländler trios of third dance movements to contrast the stately minuet; many Haydn trios, and folk-like finale themes, have a doubling of the violin melody by an oboe, clarinet, or especially a bassoon at the octave, to enhance the rustic character.  Here is an example of this doubling instrumentation in the trio from Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 (starting at 1:55). Second, winds brought contrast to the second themes of the sonata-allegro first movements, often giving them a pastoral topic. Finally, the winds added timbral color in block chords while the strings carried the main melodic content.  Beethoven certainly follows these models in his First Symphony, but the critic seems to also recognize an extended the use of the wind instruments beyond his predecessors.  For example, the winds more often double the melody played by the strings, such as at the beginning of the second movement and in the middle of the fourth movement. Moreover, at several points in the second movement, the winds get the melody to themselves. 

Beethoven’s use of winds would continue to expand, becoming central to his emerging orchestral voice.  Many have credited this expansion to Beethoven’s exposure, and dramatic desire to use French Revolutionary Military and ceremonial music.  The First Symphony premiered just a decade after the onset of the French Revolution. Thus, the First Symphony may have been flavored by French military music which was dominated by the Harmonie instrumentation.

Contributors: CH, SH, MER


Topics and readings for further inquiry

The symphony tradition inherited by Beethoven
Elaine Sisman, “ ‘The spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands’: Beethoven’s Musical Inheritance,” in Glenn Stanley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 45-63. 

Harmoniemusik and “Turkish” Music
Rhodes, Stephen L. “Harmoniemusik and the Classical Wind Band.”  History of the Wind Bands. Accessed 07/10/2020.

French Revolutionary Military and Fête Music
Military Marches of the French Royal Army (1652–1830)

Jones, R. “Beethoven and the Sound of Revolution in Vienna, 1792–1814.” The Historical Journal, 57/4 (2014): 947-971. 

Beethoven and Royal Patrons, including Count Waldstein
Interlude. Ludwig van Beethoven: A Universe of Dedications.  Accessed 01/11/2020.


Online Resources

Early Editions of Score and Parts
First edition of the First Symphony: Parts

Early edition of the First Symphony score, Published by London: Cianchettini & Sperati 

Modern Score available online
Dover edition of the First Symphony

New York Philharmonic score including annotations from Leonard Bernstein

Recordings available online
Period/HIP Performances—
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement

Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Harnoncourt 
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement 
Complete set of Beethoven Symphonies

Orchestra of the 18th Century, Brüggen
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
Complete Set of Beethoven Symphonies by Orchestra of the 18th Century and Brüggen

Important Recordings by Modern Orchestras—
Leonard Bernstein conducts Symphony No. 1 | Wiener Philharmoniker 
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement 
Although he may be a controversial conductor at times with his tempi choices, Bernstein is able to capture the character of Beethoven well in this performance. 

Herbert von Karajan conducts Symphony No. 1 | Philharmonia Orchestra 
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
A rather different approach than Bernstein’s recording, the balance and blending of the orchestra is astounding. From the slow introduction in the first movement to the last note of the finale, there’s a specific characteristic that Karajan had in mind so the contrasts from the delicate to the bold moments is what makes this recording stand out from others.

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf 
The recording emphasized that Beethoven began his symphony in the wrong key and his overuse of the wind section, which is a different place compared with “classical” composers.

Descriptions available online (videos, program notes, etc.)
Analysis of Symphony No. 1.   AQA Teachers’ Resource.  
This analyzes all 4 movements and gives specific measure numbers of the new sections.

Tibor Kovacs, Sonata form – Beethoven’s 1st Symphony. 
Discusses the use of sonata form with analysis in the first movement.

Study of the first 2 movements of Symphony No.  1.  Varndean College Music.  
Some basic information that might be interesting and explains musical features (phrase, modulation, tonality, use of motifs) to a non-musician.

Symphony No. 1: Beethoven announces himself 
Gardiner and the ORR on Beethoven’s Symphonies 

Program Note from NPR/Philadelphia Orchestra 

A Guide to Symphony 1 from Classical Music

Symphony No. 1, Op. 21 from LA Philharmonic
Gives basic facts and the history of the First Symphony

Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s program notes.  
In addition to the detailed analysis of all four movements, the author relates similarities to Haydn’s late symphonies. 

Richard Wigmore, Proms: Programme Note Beethoven, Symphony No. 1 in C major.
This program notes also go through the four movements in detail. Especially it introduced how Beethoven used wind like “winds and strings often used in antiphonal blocks.”

Program notes from Laney Boyd on Symphony No. 1 and No. 3

For other online resources, see the bibliographies on the home page.