About this Piece
Length: c. 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
If Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 has been neglected by music historians and commentators, there are probably several reasons for this, the most obvious being when it was composed. Specifically, in Beethoven’s chronology it had the misfortune to be placed between that great “watershed work” Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and the Symphony No. 5. But it was also surrounded by such great works as the “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57, the three Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59, the opera Fidelio, Op. 72, Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58, and the Violin Concerto, Op. 61. These works all fall very close to each other in time; they all succeed the historic innovation of Symphony No. 3, and they all embody what has come to be called Beethoven’s “symphonic ideal.”
The symphonic ideal is of a two-fold nature: technical and extra-musical. Beginning with the “Eroica,” Beethoven expanded virtually every dimension of sonata style to a degree that was unfathomable at the time – and in many ways, still is. Technically, this means that all structural elements, including harmony, rhythm, melody, key relationships, chord spacing, and instrumentation were integrated so that each element is reflective of the others. By isolating an element such as a melodic fragment or a harmony in one movement, and then transplanting it to another in order to develop it further, Beethoven expanded the process of “thematic recurrence,” thereby demonstrating the organic unity of all elements. This revolutionary unity of form raised the classical relationship of part-to-whole to a higher level. It is almost as though Beethoven was writing music about music.
Equal in importance to the technical aspect of the symphonic ideal is that of the extra-musical and, by way of implication, the psychological. In fact, the technical and extra-musical/psychological aspects cannot be separated. For it is Beethoven’s intellectual penetration and manipulation of his materials, and the resulting organic growth of “evolving” themes and their dramatic interplay with all the forces of the symphony that suggests a kind of heroic psychological journey toward individuation. A programmatic title such as “Eroica” (heroic) consciously given to a work that its author knew to mark a turning point in modern symphonic writing boldly states the case. It is this aspect of his work that is identified as “romantic,” in spite of the absolute “classicism” of the musical structures.
Though the Symphony No. 4 shares many aspects of the symphonic ideal with its immediate siblings, it does not necessarily wear its psychological meaning on its sleeve. It could be that this lack of psychological catharsis is the reason for the neglect by the commentators, as it is often tossed off as being a pint of relaxation between the titanic intellectual demands of the “Eroica” and the Symphony No. 5. What it lacks in “seriousness” is balanced by its directness and its classically contained power.
The Adagio introduction of the first movement establishes an ambience of suspense by avoiding the key of the Symphony, for 42 measures. Beethoven presents a theme in the strings that hovers harmonically between G-flat major and B-flat minor and is made up of interlocking melodic thirds. The music then moves through a series of keys until it reaches the tone A, at which point both the tempo and volume increase into the Allegro vivace and the “real” key of B-flat major. The movement ends with a codetta based on the first theme.
In the Adagio second movement, the opening accompanimental figure threads its way through the movement as a series of rhythmical metamorphoses with each statement of thematic or transitional material, but always appears in its original form with each repetition of the first theme. The movement ends with a brief coda followed by the accompaniment figure played as timpani solo.
By any other name, the Menuetto would be a Scherzo, a scherzo and trio that is. The trio section contrasts with the scherzo by way of a slightly slower tempo and more prominence given to the woodwinds.
The infectious joviality of the fourth movement is attributable to the 16th-note subject stated in the strings. The second subject, played by the oboe, offers the only textural change to the perpetual motor rhythm of the 16th-note motion. Beethoven finally brings this riotous moto perpetuo to an end by increasing the note values of a fragmented first subject to eighth notes separated by rests, thereby creating the effect of a gradual winding down. This brief caesura is dispelled as the 16th-note motion sarcastically returns to punctuate the symphony.
-Composer Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.