Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60

BORN: Probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna

COMPOSED: Summer and early autumn of 1806. Dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff, who purchased certain rights to the early performance of this symphony if he did not literally commission it

WORLD PREMIERE: March 1807. The composer led it in a private performance in the Vienna home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, in a concert that also included the premieres of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Piano Concerto No. 4

US PREMIERE: November 24, 1849. Theodor Eisfeld conducted the New York Philharmonic Society

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1916. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2016. Marek Janowski conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is probably the least frequently performed of his nine symphonies, which reflects less on the work itself than on the other eight, or at least a handful of them. If Beethoven’s Fourth had been written by one of the composer’s turn-of-the-century contemporaries—say, by Clementi or Dušek—it would be exalted as a supreme achievement of orchestral writing, towering above anything else in their catalogues. Viewed in the context of Beethoven’s corpus, listeners may be tempted to focus on what the Fourth Symphony is not, rather than on what it is.

What it is not, most immediately, is Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, those two punch-packing, jaw-dropping exercises in superhuman grandeur and titanic power. Robert Schumann poetically captured the Fourth’s relationship to its neighbors when he called it “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” Berlioz viewed it as a return to an earlier sound-world. “Here,” he wrote, “Beethoven entirely abandons ode and elegy, in order to return to the less elevated and less somber, but not less difficult, style of the Second Symphony. The general character of this score is either lively, alert, and gay or of a celestial sweetness.”

Beethoven was pressed for cash when he wrote his Fourth Symphony, trying to cover his own expenses as well as debts piled up by his relatives. Although he was accustomed to renting modest residences outside Vienna in which to spend his summers, he decided to forego that pleasure in 1806, though at the end of summer he headed with his patron Prince Lichnowsky to Silesia. During that journey, he and the Prince paid a visit to Count Franz von Oppersdorff, who maintained a small private orchestra. Oppersdorff was so enthusiastic about music that he required everyone on his staff to play an instrument, and he was delighted to entertain Lichnowsky and Beethoven by having his musicians perform the composer’s Second Symphony. Musicological opinion used to hold that the Count offered to commission a symphony, and Beethoven leapt at the chance. It seems more likely, however, that Beethoven had already completed the Fourth and that Oppersdorff offered to purchase rights to it. But if the Count’s orchestra played this music before its Vienna premiere, we have no record of such a performance. In any case, when Beethoven offered this piece to his publishers on September 3, he claimed it was essentially finished, and it seems that he wrote it not as work for hire, but simply because he wanted to.

Whatever its genesis, the Fourth Symphony seems to have given its composer little trouble. Few preliminary sketches exist, and those that do give no evidence of the agonizing experimentation and reworking often apparent in Beethoven’s drafts. Despite the progression of his debilitating deafness, Beethoven was on a compositional roll in 1806. His catalogue for the year is packed with masterpieces, including the three Razumovsky string quartets (Opus 59), the revised version of the opera that would evolve into Fidelio (including its famous Leonore Overture No. 3), the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth symphonies.

THE MUSIC Following in the steps of Haydn (who in 1806 was still active but emphatically retired), Beethoven opens his Fourth Symphony with a hushed, introspective introduction, harmonically evasive but emphasizing the minor mode. A listener encountering the piece for the first time would have every reason to expect that a work of tension, suspense, and mystery lay in store. But in an eight-measure passage—fortissimo and with the texture expanded to include the brilliance of trumpets and timpani—that embraces the end of the Adagio and the beginning of the Allegro vivace, a rapidly ascending scale figure cuts through the darkness and breaks apart into ever smaller fragments, not unlike fireworks that fragment into sparkling shards. And suddenly we realize that the orchestra has embarked on what will be a thoroughly playful fast movement. It unrolls according to a succinct Classical method, with a “proper” second subject being introduced through a perky conversation among the bassoon, oboe, and flute. But we can rely on Beethoven to inject some unusual characterization. The movement’s development section boasts an irresistible overlay of a new song-like melody in counterpoint above (or below, or around) the entries of the movement’s main theme. What’s more, the whole section spends a fair amount of time pretending that it is going to resolve to B-natural—so near to, but yet so far from, the true destination of B-flat, which is reached via a crescendo that grows out of a sudden hush.

The second movement also recalls Haydn through a recurrent rhythmic pattern, rather along the lines of the accompanying figures that pop up in that composer’s Symphonies Nos. 22 (The Philosopher) and 101 (The Clock). This pattern acts as both support of and foil to the tender melody that unrolls above it. At the middle of the movement stands an episode that the distinguished musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey called “one of the most imaginative passages anywhere in Beethoven.” Its unanticipated movement from an angry minor-key transformation of the principal theme to a delicate duet for violins alone is indeed extraordinary. The slow movement concludes with a coda in which the main theme is fragmented and distributed throughout the orchestra; and at the very end, the timpani intone the rhythmic underpinning of the opening, which, in retrospect, sounds as if it could have been a drum-beat all along.

In his third movement, Beethoven has already left the spirit of the Classical minuet in the dust, replacing it definitively with the high-energy of the scherzo. Duple-time figures compete with the underlying triple-time pulse to yield dramatic cross-rhythms. An unaccustomed return to the trio for a second go-round expands the minuet’s standard three-part structure into a five-part form. (Beethoven apparently liked the balance achieved through this pattern, as he turned to it again in his Sixth and Seventh symphonies.)

The scurrying opening theme of the last movement announces the perpetual-motion character that will pervade the finale. Before he reaches the end, the composer works in a last laugh or two. The development section keeps the audience wondering where everything is heading. Where it’s heading is, of course, where the movement’s main theme is expected to return for its concluding argument; but when we arrive there, the theme is stated not by the full orchestra but rather by a single bassoon, chortling a bit bumptiously through the flurry of rapid-fire sixteenth notes. The orchestra swoops in to pick up the tune and nearly makes it to the end before threatening to break down in exhaustion. A few instruments manage to puff out the theme pianissimo at half its tempo—and then, with a final surge of energy and a few boisterous chords, Beethoven’s Fourth crosses the finish line buoyantly

.—James M. Keller

The note originally appeared in different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

More About the Music
RECORDINGS: Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Eloquence)  |  Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony)  |  Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)

READING: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Barry Cooper (Oxford, Master Musicians Series)  |  The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)

ONLINE: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Available at and on iTunes and Amazon.

(January 2017)