Sonata form – Beethoven’s first symphony in C major, Op. 21

Posted on August 5, 2013


In this listening exercise I ventured to understand in more detail the inner workings of a symphonic movement in sonata form. Sonata form denotes the large scale structure of a movement of concert music widely used since the classical period mostly in symphonies, chamber and solo instrumental music. The first movement of a symphony is usually conceived in sonata form, or some variation of the sonata form, and often some of the other movements are structured along the sonata format as well. However, the sonata form cannot  and should not be regarded as some sort of “static” set of unbreakable rules, but rather as a compositional practice that emerged from the efforts of eighteenth century composers to represent dramatic action in instrumental music. Their compositions bear more “exceptions” than strict adherence to any rigid structure. The theoretical format that was later conceptualised in the nineteenth century  as “sonata form” was based on certain compositional techniques often used by composers to create tension, dynamism, narrative, while maintaining a certain degree of “good taste”, balance and symmetry within their music.

So what we perceive today as “sonata form”  is essentially a synthesis of new ideas that were thought to serve the ideal of Enlightenment i.e. wide appeal, dramatic development, elegance, balance, a complex form of symmetry (without direct repetition) and sophistication. These elements were flexibly and creatively used in very different ways by different composers to create meaningful musical compositions, and it caused great difficulties to musicologists for centuries to reliably find the ultimate defining characteristics of this concept.

For the purpose of this exercise, the first movement of Beethoven’s first symphony serves as a good subject, as it carries the characteristics of the late classical style in its full bloom … and a little bit more. It was a sort of jumping into deep water and trying to float by fluttering my arms and swallowing large amounts of water (please somebody jump in and HELP me). During the slow process of my drowning I tried to follow and make sense of the musical score, which is freely available on public domain sources, such as the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) Petrucci Music Library. To delineate the major structural elements of the movement (Intro, Exposition, Development, Recap, Coda) I also looked at a colour-coded analysis of the music available on YouTube (everything helps). When I was feeling almost completely under water I tried to cling to some music theory resources (Teacher Resource Bank). As this is my first trial of understanding a composition in such great detail, aiming solely to enhance my enjoyment and appreciation of the music, my comments are of (very) limited value and are far from a musicological analysis. I can only hope that my second trial (for the sake of simplicity I will choose Mahler’s ninth) will be a bit more accurate.

The symphony is comprised of four movements, three of which (the first, second and forth movements) are clearly structured in sonata form. Beethoven premiered his first symphony in 1800 at the Burgtheater in Vienna (along with his Septet in E-flat major and Piano Concerto No. 2), aiming to establish himself a career in the public concert hall, when he was already well known in private and aristocratic circles in the city. The concert was a great success, the music has proven to be very much to the taste of the contemporary audience. In the case of the symphony, the key to the success was its careful balance between adherence to formal traditions established by the generation of Haydn and Mozart, and sufficient novelty and discordance to generate interest. Beethoven displayed both his mastery of the classical idiom and his ambitions as a progressive innovator.

Beethoven Symphony No.1 with Sheet Music Score

 Introduction: The movement starts with a slow introduction of 12 bars, which sustains tension from its beginning up to its junction with the exposition. This introduction is unusual in its harmonic progression, as it never reaches a strong statement of the tonic C major, but rather modulates all over around it, touching its dominant (G major), dominant seventh, subdominant (F major) and relative minor (A minor) chords. The harmonic modulation and the dynamic variations within the introduction create a fascinating sense of levitation.

Exposition: The first movement (Adagio molto – Allegro con brio) is built around two themes with regular phrase structure, the first one is a sharp, staccato rising theme, and the second is a soft lyrical melodic line, presented in the exposition, which is structured as follows:

  • First theme: We experience a sense of stability for the first time in the beginning of the exposition, when the vigorous first principal theme is stated by the violins, lightly accompanied by the lower string instruments. After defining the melody in the tonic key in the first phrase, the second phrase moves upwards one scale degree to the supertonic minor key (D minor) creating an interesting harmonic effect, before returning to C major through an F minor and G seventh chord. I find this harmonic movement, supported by dynamic changes such as crescendo – decrescendo and sforzando, very emotional and energetic, subtle and explosive in the same time, characteristic to Beethoven’s music.
  •  Modulating bridge: After the first theme a modulating bridge section follows, which remains close to the chords related to C major in its harmonic structure, i.e. dominant and subdominant. It is interesting how the string and the woodwind sections develop a linear narrative similar to spoken language, a conversation with alternating phrases of variable length. The phrases are first expanding up to 3-4 bars in length, then suddenly contract at the end of the bridge, each section stating their point twice in both in both measures 49 and 50, in a staccato alternating fashion (bars 49-50), before arriving to a shared conclusion in the dominant G chord, creating an imperfect cadence.
  • Second theme: The second theme is all about contrast. First of all, its main theme starts with a lyrical minim-quaver motif stated in a conversation between the oboes and the flutes, in contrast with the vigorous and rapid first theme. This gentle phrase played in piano, consisting of four measures (52-56), is followed by a somewhat more energetic second phrase (another four measures), which contains a sforzando accent on the third beat for the woodwinds and on the fourth beat for the strings. This pattern is repeated three times, the last one preparing a marked increase in the energy level of the music between measures 69 and 77, which contains a forte repetitive rapid rhythm by the strings leading to scale-like movements of the woodwind and string sections. The bassoons, violas, cellos and contrabass are mostly moving in contrary motion with the rest of the orchestra, which I find fascinating, as it breaks the “perfectness” of the scales, without creating frank dissonance. The second theme returns to a soft ending in bars 77-88, when the initial soft minim-quaver motif is taken over by the cellos and double bass, with a pianissimo accompaniment by the strings and soothing sustained notes played by the woodwind section (something they can do sooo beautifully…).
  •  Codetta: This section brings the exposition to a temporary conclusion – it features recombination of elements we are familiar with from the two principal themes and the modulating bridge. First we hear the beginning of the first theme stated vigorously, which leads to a display of harmonic modulations similar to the bridge, but perhaps in a more definitive, firm fashion, leading to a sequence in measures 98-99 where the main chords related to C major are played in sforzando octaves by the woodwinds. And to balance out the high energy level of the codetta, a soft and gentle passage follows, which sounds to me somewhat similar to the second theme, although it is not identical. The codetta and the Exposition are ended with a concluding cadence leading to the dominant chord. In continuation the exposition part is repeated, with the slight difference of a different ending consisting of eight measures.

Development: The development section is a superb example of how two initial themes could mix with and influence each other in the context of a superb harmonic firework. It starts in a rather distant key i.e. A major and a quick move to a two-bar fragment of the first phrase of the first theme in C major, followed by a two-bar fragment similar to the second phrase of the second theme, in syncopated rhythm. After three variants of this pattern unfolds a harmonic development dominated by minor chords, with some chromatic transitions as well (e.g. bars 131-132). Rising and falling arpeggiated chords in parallel and contrary movement are exchanged between different instruments, making the section very colourful. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the flutes, first violins and cello & double bass in measures 122-137. To continue the fantastic display, a B flat variant of the first theme appears starting from measure 146, which is exchanged between bassoons, oboes and flutes in a way similar to the presentation of the second theme in the exposition, softening it considerably. After reaching a climactic moment in the following measures, the section gently leads to the recapitulation through a G7 chord.

Recapitulation: this section is introduced by a shortened version of the first theme, played very firmly with full orchestral force in perfect concordance. The bridge between the first and second theme is shortened and simplified. A descending semiquaver motif played in an alternate imitative way by the upper and lower strings maintains something from the “conversation” heard in the exposition for a short while. It starts with a piano dynamics and steadily increases in its intensity leading to a section dominated by rising and falling scales played in parallel movement by the instruments (which is like singing together, rather than a conversation), at one point (in bar 205) playing in unison, which is the moment of maximum intensity of the bridge. The second theme and codetta are then repeated as we heard them in the exposition.

  • Coda: After the music progressed from divergent themes and harmonic ambiguity towards increasing convergence in the recapitulation, the coda brings about full thematic and instrumental convergence. The dominating dynamic tendency is crescendo towards fortissimo. A brief sequence of modulation summarises the main chords related to C major (dominant, subdominant, relative minor and supertonic), taking us to a triumphant statement of the tonic key, the first theme alternating with rising triads and then falling arpeggios of the C major chord finishing on a full stop on C major.

Tibor Kovacs, August 2013


Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

Musical score of Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven Composed in 1800, available at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) Petrucci Music Library online at

 Teachers Resource Bank, A-level Music, MUSC1 Set Work Analysis, Beethoven Symphony No 1, Movements 1 and 2, The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Varndean College Music & Music Technology, Brighton available online at

 Set work – Beethoven: Symphony No. 1, first and second movements. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Varndean College Music & Music Technology, Brighton available online at


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