A guide to Beethoven's Symphony No. 4
We share the history behind Beethoven's great Fourth Symphony and analyse its style
When and where did the premiere of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony take place?
Beethoven's Fourth Symphony was first played at the Burg Theater, Vienna, on 13 April 1808. Beethoven spent the summer of 1806 as a guest of one of his principal patrons, Prince Lichnowsky, at his country residence in Silesia. On a visit to the nearby castle of Count Oppersdorff, who maintained a private orchestra, they heard a performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, and it was probably on this occasion that the Count commissioned a new symphony from him.
How does Beethoven's Fourth Symphony open?
The Fourth opens with a dark and brooding slow introduction which unfolds almost entirely in the minor, as though the music were groping its way towards the light. No less original is the way in which, in the following Allegro, the recapitulation is approached. This is the crucial moment where the main theme returns in the home key, and Beethoven highlights it by creating an atmosphere of hushed expectancy, before a sudden outburst announces the arrival of the recapitulation itself.
In the Fourth, the air of mystery is particularly prolonged, with fragments of the main theme punctuated by quiet timpani rolls. In an unprecedented stroke, Beethoven overcomes the limitations of the timpani of his day – they weren’t able to alter their pitch without a cumbersome process of retuning – and uses them in the context of a remote key by effectively treating the note B flat, to which one of the two timpani had been tuned from the outset, as its aural equivalent: A sharp. After this, the music undergoes a luminous sea-change back into the home key, and a long crescendo unleashes the recapitulation.
Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim at the 2012 BBC Proms
The body of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony
The slow movement is largely based on one of Beethoven’s favourite oppositions: a smoothly sustained melody unfolding over an accompaniment in a sharply defined, military-style rhythm. The rhythm pauses for the theme’s luxuriant continuation, but it returns in the closing bars of the piece, where the spotlight again falls on the timpani, which give it out on their own.
As Beethoven’s symphonic canvasses grew larger, he clearly felt the need to expand the scope of the scherzo to match that of the surrounding movements. His solution was to transform what had traditionally been a tripartite form into a five-part design, with the trio played twice, between three appearances of the scherzo. In the Fourth Symphony, the format is slightly abridged, and following the second appearance of the slower trio we hear not the complete scherzo, but a portion of its second part.
The finale of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony
The bubbling finale is a piece imbued with the spirit of Haydn, and in its closing bars v takes a leaf out of Haydn’s book by allowing the music to degenerate into pure farce: fragments of the main theme are limply played at half speed, as though the piece were about to collapse altogether, before an abrupt gesture from the full orchestra brings the curtain down.
Recommended recording of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony
An exhilaratingly alert performance responding to every nuance of the music, and with a spellbinding account of the long pianissimo passage heralding the first movement’s recapitulation. Violinist and conductor Joshua Bell and his co-players also convey all the warmth of the slow movement and the wit of the finale.
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell
Sony Classical 88765448812
Words by Misha Donat. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
Having been a senior music producer at BBC Radio 3 for over 25 years, Misha Donat is now a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine and writes, lectures and produces in the UK and US. He also writes booklet and programme notes for record labels and venues including London's Wigmore Hall.