Length: 35 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 26, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
We can understand historically why a work such as Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony struck its first listeners as wild and weird, but in experience we are much more likely to hear the vigorous expression of order and purpose rather than formless chaos. Yet that is how it appeared to many contemporaries.
Beethoven composed it in 1806, interrupting work on what would become the Fifth Symphony. The Fourth was premiered in March 1807 in a concert at the home of Prince Lobkowitz on a fairly typical program that also included the first three symphonies.
It opens with a slow, mysterious introduction in the minor mode. This is music that seems to be groping in the dark, but the fumbling hands finally find the light switch, flooding the score with a brilliant flash of dominant light and the movement is off in a blazing rush. Many of the sudden changes of temper – dynamic and instrumental contrasts, fierce accents, harmonic feints – are not wayward indiscretions, but actually call attention to important structural points. Stabilizing this seemingly careening cannonball of a movement is a long and emphatic coda, a sort of formal ballast for which Beethoven became famous.
The idyllic main theme of the Adagio – “an angel singing at the gate of Paradise,” for Hector Berlioz – is little more than a scale, though measured and accompanied with incomparable elegance. This movement has its dark side too, including rhythmic obsessions and harmonic digressions, before ending with stentorian affirmation.
Contrast also rules the Allegro vivace, an extended scherzo (A-B-A-B-A) in all but name. Metrical cross accents jostle the first phrase – is this music in two or in three? – while the second slithers disturbingly in quiet chromatic lines. In the B section, the woodwinds suggest the expected rustic dance, but are impertinently teased by the first violins almost every time they take a breath.
Harmonic and rhythmic games abound in the finale, a sonata form of classical clarity, including a repeated exposition. Beethoven rounds off this symphony with an ending almost as ambiguous as its beginning, an oddly hesitant thing of dramatic gaps and quiet questions (that subtly tie up many motivic loose ends in the very asking), before the final explosive affirmation of the home key.