LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed his Fourth Symphony in the last half of 1806. The premiere took place in a private performance at Prince Lobkowitz’s Vienna residence in late March 1807. The score calls for one flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.

No sketches survive for the Fourth Symphony, and Beethoven seems to have been able to complete it with very little delay or effort. It is very likely that he used many of the ideas that had been fermenting for the Fifth Symphony, though in a very different character, for the more cheerful Fourth. Though the basic mood of the two works could hardly be more different, the fundamental musical gesture of a falling third is central to the conception of both (the very first line in the slow introduction of the Fourth traces in its opening notes the same melodic outline as the famous rhythmic figure that opens the Fifth). By the time Beethoven completed the Fifth in 1808, he was also busy at work on the Sixth, with which it has other things in common. The Fifth Symphony is thus a link to the whole middle part of Beethoven’s career as a symphony composer.

The Fourth Symphony opens with a mystifying slow introduction that suggests the key of B-flat minor. Listeners in Beethoven’s day familiar with the late Haydn symphonies would naturally expect the key of the symphony to follow to be in B flat major, but the route by which it is achieved is long in doubt, and for a time it appears to be aiming at the astonishingly distant key of B-natural. Finally, Beethoven weighs a sustained, emphatic A, reinterpreting it as a note in the dominant chord of B-flat, and the Allegro suddenly materializes from what had seemed far distances.

The headlong rush of the movement, a welcome release from the sustained tension of the slow introduction, flashes with high spirits, as if the past were forgotten. The jaunty main theme is nicely contrasted with the cheerful, slightly rustic second theme. The development begins a series of modulating reiterations of the main theme, to which Beethoven adds a lovely lyric counterpoint. But harmonic clouds gather, recalling the unsettled slow introduction and intimations of the key of B, a world away from the home key of B-flat (yet the very key that was hinted at in the slow introduction). A soft, sustained timpani roll on B-flat calls the home key to the attention of the remainder of the orchestra, and a long crescendo of scale fragments builds rousingly to the beginning of the recapitulation, in one of Beethoven’s most original musical effects. It is not surprising to have a long crescendo on the dominant that resolves, at the beginning of the recapitulation to the home key. But here we realize, with surprise and delight, that the home key had already been reached at the beginning of the crescendo. We had come “home” before we even knew it. This is another example of Beethoven’s way of ringing new changes on the formal patterns of the sonata plan.

The slow movement begins with the hint of a distant horn call or signal in the second violins before the arrival of a serenely beautiful melody. The signal keeps returning more obtrusively, while the melody undergoes lavish ornamentation that keep the musicians’ fingers busy while maintaining the idyllic mood of the opening. But this serenity is ousted by a stormy outburst for the full orchestra; it moves to a darkly distant key, but returns (with help from the flute) for the restatement of the opening. The coda is lush and peaceful again, with but the smallest outburst to interrupt its meditation.

Again, as in the First Symphony, Beethoven uses the obsolete designation “Menuetto” for his third movement, and it is no more suitable here than it was there. This is no sedate courtly dance. The whole movement is filled with musical jokes, some broad, some refined. The first phrase already highlights the cross-rhythms that so frequently disturb the triple meter of the dance. That is followed by a smooth melodic phrase that demolishes the sense of key. What kind of courtly dance is this? The next section leaps out of the key we have landed in and begins playing games on all our expectations of the melody as well. The Trio is more rustic in character, but no less filled with witty surprise. The opening section, which is surely a scherzo despite Beethoven’s label, returns and ends in high spirits.

The finale is as effervescent a piece as Beethoven ever wrote, built on a perpetual motion figure that could be a parody of violin exercises (though he was primarily a pianist, Beethoven had also played the viola in the theater orchestra of Bonn and had surely been forced to undergo the rigorous technical training that the playing of a stringed instrument requires). It leads to still more humorous sallies. Perhaps the wittiest of them all comes at the very end of the piece when the entire orchestra stops and the first violins play the theme at half its normal speed—as if the players are too exhausted to continue and Beethoven is giving them a break. The equally exhausted bassoon chimes in, echoed by the second violins and violas. At this point the entire orchestra races through the last six measures to end their labors and one of the wittiest symphonies in the entire repertory. —© Steven Ledbetter