Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, the first heralding the new century, in 1800, and the last completed in 1824. Although he made few changes to the composition of the orchestra itself, adding, when occasion demanded, one or two instruments more normally found in the opera-house, he expanded vastly the traditional form, developed in the time of Haydn and Mozart, reflecting the personal and political struggles of a period of immense change and turbulence. To his contemporaries he seemed an inimitable original, but to a number of his successors he seemed to have expanded the symphony to an intimidating extent. In his early years in
Bonn Beethoven had planned a symphony, the natural ambition of any composer.
His first extant composition in this form, however, was written towards the end of the century and first performed in Vienna at the Imperial Court Theatre on 2nd April, 1800. The symphony was dedicated to Baron van Swieten, the arbiter of musical taste in Vienna, who had encouraged Mozart and provided the texts for Haydn’s later oratorios.
The programme for what was in fact Beethoven’s first benefit concert was a substantial one. A Mozart symphony was followed by an aria from Haydn’s Creation. Then came a piano concerto by Beethoven, with the composer as soloist. The Schuppanzigh Quartet was joined by three wind-players to perform a septet, by Beethoven. After this came the symphony.
As so often in Beethoven’s career, reviews were decidedly cool, and we may gather that all did not run as smoothly as it should have done. There was a quarrel about who should direct the orchestra, and the players did not listen to the soloist in the concerto, while in the symphony the wind instruments were particularly unenthusiastic in their performance. The symphony later formed part of a concert in 1803, when Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives was first performed. On that occasion it was well enough received, in spite of the length of the programme.
The First Symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums, with the usual strings, and the Pastoral Symphony for additional piccolo and trombones.
The sixth of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the Pastoral, was first performed at a concert in Vienna in December 1808. The occasion was an important one for the composer, since it was likely to prove the only significant source of income for him that year. In preparation for the event he had put aside work on his projected opera Macbeth and on the alternative text of Bradamante, both supplied by Heinrich von Collil1, and assembled a programme of phenomenal length. The works played included the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, a piano fantasia, items for soloists and chorus and, in conclusion, a Fantasia for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the il1troduction of the choruses as a fil1ale, the Choral Fantasia
Predictably the concert was an embarrassment to Beethoven’s friends, compelled to sit for four hours in the bitterly cold Theater-an-der-Wien. As one otherwise sympathetic observer reported, it proved possible to have too much of a good thing, and still more of a loud. The concert was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven had met considerable opposition from members of the orchestra. In the Choral
Fantasia instructions about repeats had been misunderstood, so that the work had to be started again, and Beethoven intervened with audible comments on mistakes.
Nevertheless the Sixth Symphony, which happily opened the concert, was well enough received, in spite of its unusual length.
The advertisement for Beethoven’s December concert billed the Pastoral Symphony as A Recollection of Country Life, to be described by the composer, in a careful attempt to dispel any suspicion that he had written a crude imitation of nature, as more an expression of feeling than tone-painting In some ways the work may be seen as a conclusion and summary of a tradition of music inspired by the country, although the Wordsworthian suggestion of emotion recollected in tranquillity is very much of its period.