Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Beethoven Symphony No. 4

The first years of the 19th century were turbulent ones for Ludwig van Beethoven: the first signs of his deafness and his worrying state of health were a severe trial for him, as we can read in the painful letters from 1801. The continual buzzing in his ears drove him to the brink of suicide in October 1802; he went so far as to draw up a will in favour of his two brothers, the Heiligenstadt Testament. Beethoven was only thirty-two years old. At the same time, however, he was flourishing both artistically and materially. He wrote to his friend Franz Wegeler: 'My compositions are bringing in sizeable sums of money; I can even say that I have more commissions than I can fulfil. I don’t need to negotiate with people any more, I state my price and they pay.' With six string quartets, two symphonies, fifteen piano sonatas and three piano concertos to his name, Beethoven then informed his friends enthusiastically at the end of 1802 that he had struck out on a new path with his music: this was to be his heroic middle period, with the finest examples of this new style being his Third Symphony, nicknamed Eroica, and the Third Piano Concerto.

Beethoven composed his Fourth Symphony not long after the Fourth Piano Concerto. Beethoven’s long struggle with what was later to become his Fifth Symphony — not for nothing did his pupil Anton Schindler describe it as ‘Fate knocking at the door’ — had caused him to put it aside for a while; it was during this time that these two highly lyrical works were composed. The Fourth Symphony contains no heroic gestures nor speculations about Beethoven’s love-hate relationship with Napoleon as does the Third, nor does it contain the struggle with Fate that we hear in the Fifth. Musicological studies of Beethoven’s music find it difficult to approach this somewhat neglected work: it contains no obvious connection with events in Beethoven’s life nor ethical values that would increase its worth. It is simply about itself. The character of the symphony is largely determined by its two Adagios: the first of these forms the slow introduction to the first movement; the second is the self-contained slow movement of the symphony.

The introduction does not contain the solemnity familiar to us from the majestic arches of sound that launch many of Haydn’s symphonies. Its mood is both mysterious and ominous; a violent crescendo launches a theme that initiates the Allegro vivace. This new tempo is light and dancelike, although at times it carries an undertone of threat and of melancholy. The strong accents and leanings towards the minor key of the second theme give rise to feelings of fear and restlessness, although we are very far from the massive sonorities of the opening movements of the Third or the Fifth. One of the most perfect slow movements that Beethoven was ever to compose now follows: it seems to contain the very essence of the symphony, although the minor key makes its inevitable appearance. The Allegro molto e vivace that follows is a minuet, with not only rhythmically inventive passages that flash past but also a splendid Trio that is played twice. The unbelievable whirlwind that is the finale inspired Mendelssohn, Schumann and Dvořák and many others to compose their own orchestral tours de force. Despite the metronome marking of crotchet = 160, Beethoven also marked the score Allegro ma non troppo: fast, but not too fast, given all the racing semiquavers and treacherous syncopations. Whilst several fermatas towards the end of the movement seem to bring the forward momentum to a stop, the final six bars resume full speed for a breathtaking conclusion.

Translation: Peter Lockwood