Symphony No. 4 in B flat Major, Op. 60

Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827)

In between Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and his C minor, Symphony No. 4 is what Robert Schumann later referred to as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods.”  While the two works that surround the symphony are decidedly “heroic” in style, the Fourth is lighter and more lyrical, in keeping with the mood of Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies.  Yet although it remains one of his lesser-known symphonies, overshadowed by the popularity of the monumental works on either side—which better fit the image of Beethoven we love to perpetuate—this is not to say that the Fourth does not hold immense value of its own to be discovered.  Its lighter mood belies subtle harmonic complexities at work within the compact structure, and demonstrates Beethoven’s maturation as an innovator in a variety of styles beyond the heroic, however representative the heroic has come to be.  As Schumann said, “Do not illustrate his genius with the Ninth Symphony alone, no matter how great its audacity and scope, never uttered in any tongue.  You can do as much with his First Symphony, or with the Greek-like slender one in B-flat major!”

The Fourth Symphony was written in the summer of 1806, after a sojourn at the home of his friend and patron Prince Lichnowsky brought Beethoven in contact with Count Franz von Oppersdorff.  Von Oppersdorff heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and liked it so much that he offered a large sum for a new symphony.  Beethoven had already begun work on his C minor symphony, which would become his Fifth, but rather than offer it to the Count he chose to begin an entirely new work.  While this suggests he already had other plans for the C minor, perhaps he also wished to create a work that was more similar in style to the Second which von Oppersdorff so admired.  The Fourth does indeed have much in common stylistically with the Second, but, as such, should not be considered a regression—it is indicative of Beethoven’s process, which throughout his career involved looking back on previous masters and his own earlier works to learn and grow organically from the past.  Whatever his reasons for starting a piece from scratch, his Fourth Symphony was completed in September 1806 and first performed in March of 1807 in Vienna, at a private concert in the palace of Prince Lobkowitz.  The same concert premiered Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Coriolan Overture.  His agreement with von Oppersdorff included the understanding that Beethoven would be free to publish the work after six months—Beethoven the artist also had to be Beethoven the businessman in order to make a living—and so it was published in 1808 with a dedication to “the Silesian nobleman Count Franz von Oppersdorff.”

The Fourth is one of Beethoven’s shortest symphonies and also one of his simplest in orchestration: one flute, two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.  This is the orchestra of Mozart and Haydn, and again we see Beethoven looking to the past to remain innovative.  The symphony has a light, graceful energy, and the action happens quickly in its compact space.

The piece opens with a mysterious slow introduction in B flat minor.  The descending thirds in the strings lend evidence to the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies’ contemporaneous composition, as the famous opening of the Fifth follows the same outline.  The introduction wanders around harmonically until the last bars of the introduction, when, with the entrance of the trumpets and timpani, it is pulled into B flat major.  With little flourishes in the strings we land happily in the home key for the Allegro section, and the moodiness of the introduction is dispelled.  The Allegro is energetic and full of syncopation.  An exuberant first theme leads to a second, slightly pastoral theme in the bassoon, oboe and flute, and a brief development brings out a more lyrical line.  We are brought into the recapitulation via more harmonic play: a sustained timpani roll on A sharp, acting as the enharmonic equivalent of B flat, allows the little upward flicks in the strings to work their way back to B flat major, where the movement closes emphatically.

The second movement is a flowing elaboration of a serene melody.  It begins with a contrasting rhythmic figure in the second violins that will persist throughout the movement, a constant pulse to counterbalance the idyllic song unfurling above it.  The first theme starts in the first violins and is picked up by the woodwinds.  A transition leads us into a tender, poignant melody in the clarinet, which returns after an interruption by a dark passage in the full orchestra.  A recapitulation of earlier ideas leads to a lush coda, which pauses to hear the rhythmic figuration one more time in the timpani before everyone closes together.

Movement three is in a scherzo-trio-scherzo form.  We are back to a sense of motion with the start of the highly energetic scherzo, full of syncopations and rhythmic play that undercuts the triple meter.  Next, the trio: a dialogue with a slightly rustic feel.  The strings respond to the woodwinds in sly jest, flicking grace notes at their more innocent statements.  A shortened return of the scherzo ends the movement.

The energy, motion, and wit is heightened in the final movement, a comic whirlwind finish propelled by the perpetual motion of the strings’ running sixteenth notes.  After the development, the strings bounce their running line around amongst themselves before handing it off momentarily to solo bassoon as though passing off a hot potato; the bassoon, after valiantly keeping it afloat, quickly passes it back to the strings for the recapitulation.  Once the orchestra has made it into the coda, everyone pauses for one gasping breath on a long sforzando chord before the violins start up again and they all push forward.  One more pause allows the violins to play their line at half speed, as though they can barely muster the energy to go any farther, and then, in one final burst, the orchestra sprints to the finish.

© 2012 Pamela Feo