Beethoven’s First Symphony

21 January 2020


Q&A with Jamie Campbell, Principal Second Violin

Jamie shares his thoughts about Beethoven’s daring First Symphony, which we perform in our New Dawns concert next month (7 Feb, Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad & 8 Feb, Kings Place).

Composed in 1799–1800 at the dawn of a new century, Beethoven’s First Symphony has been called ‘a fitting farewell to the 18th century’. In what ways would you say the work looks both forwards and backwards in time?

Beethoven uses the same orchestral forces that Mozart and Haydn would have used, and a conventional four-movement structure. Much of the writing is relatively light and ‘classical’ and, of course, his later symphonies feature much larger orchestras, more wind and brass instruments and far more unusual structures and number of movements. However, the writing is still daring and new in the First Symphony. It’s a bold statement to the musical world – ‘Here I am!’

The symphony gets off to an unusual start, moving one critic to declare: ‘No one will censure an ingenious artist like Beethoven for such liberties and peculiarities, but such a beginning is not suitable for the opening of a grand concert in a spacious opera house.’ What exactly makes it so surprising?

Beethoven starts quietly, rather than loudly, with a series of cadences that would normally be at the end of the movement rather than the beginning. The strings are pizzicato and it’s not in C major. Basically, everything’s the opposite of what you might expect!

Something not entirely expected happens at the start of the finale too. Can you tell us more?

The Finale starts with a big loud C major chord – the one you might have expected to come at the start of the first movement. However, Beethoven follows it with a cheeky, uncertain passage for the first violins on their own. It’s as if they’ve suddenly lost all their confidence and stumbled into the wrong room at a party. They start with three ascending notes, then try again with more and more, and then, with a sudden cascade of exuberance, they tumble into a wonderfully joyful theme.

The symphony includes lots of interesting writing for the wind section (one critic went so far as to say that the score was more suitable for a ‘wind band’ than an orchestra), but it seems like the strings still have plenty of beautiful bits to play. What’s your favourite thing about performing Beethoven as a violinist?

I find Beethoven to be an incredibly demanding composer for the violin. He sometimes requires virtuosity, nimbleness and dexterity and other times great depth and strength to the sound.

Returning to thoughts of dawn, how would you describe your usual morning routine? More Mark Wahlberg (03.15am workout followed by 90 minutes ‘cryo-chamber recovery’) or The Dude (a White Russian for breakfast)?

My morning usually starts with a run or a swim, followed by a good black coffee!


Photo part of Living Music, 2019/20 Season
Photo credit: Jim Hinson, Stanton Media