In the canon of Ludwig van Beethoven’s works, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60, stands as a singularly neglected and underrated masterpiece.
Many would be surprised to hear me describe the Fourth Symphony as a “masterpiece,” as it is often treated as a lesser work when it is not outright ignored. Although I haven’t taken a poll, it may well be the least popular and least known of the nine Beethoven symphonies. The Fourth has a number of things going against it. Above all, it has the misfortune to be sandwiched between the mighty Eroica symphony, No. 3, first dedicated to Napoleon and then to “the memory of a great man,” and the equally heroic Fifth Symphony in C minor, one of Beethoven’s most famous and recognizable productions with its opening “fate knocking on the door” motif and striving to victory.
Almost from the start of its life, the Fourth Symphony has been overshadowed. The 19th-century music writer George Grove inadvertently sealed the work’s fate when he likened it to “a slender Greek maiden standing between two Norse giants” (that is, standing between the monumental Third and Fifth symphonies). Carl Maria von Weber complained that the Fourth consists of “short disjointed ideas,” while Virgil Thomson called it a “dullish” symphony (maybe he just heard a dullish performance). On the other hand, such luminaries as Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz loved the work, with Berlioz praising its “celestial sweetness.”
The Fourth has gained many more fans in our day. A musicologist, Robert Simpson, provides a keen rejoinder to the Grove quote (which is often misattributed to Robert Schumann): “[the Fourth Symphony] is neither maidenly nor Greek; it is that of a giant who performs relaxed athletic movements with gigantic ease and fluency.” Music professor Robert Greenberg has said that “if any of Beethoven’s contemporaries had written this symphony, it would be considered that composer’s masterwork […] as it is, for Beethoven, it is a work in search of an audience.” A writer from the Eastman Conservatory praises the symphony as “‘Greek’ in its focus on beauty and artistic skill, and ‘slender’ in its economy of materials and marvelously understated proportions.”
Another supporter of the symphony is the music critic David Hurwitz. In one of his video commentaries he has provided a beautiful and detailed description of what makes the Fourth so great, an analysis that has enhanced my own appreciation of the work. Hurwitz echoes the idea that one of the strengths of the Fourth is its sense of proportion. All four movements are comparable in length, and all complement each other in some way. Yet the work as a whole is hardly small or diminutive. True, it is written for a smaller orchestra than the Third or Fifth; but it lasts longer than the Fifth Symphony in many performances.
Hurwitz makes the bold claim that the Fourth, far from being some sort of regression into the supposedly kinder, gentler world of Haydn and Mozart, in some respects represents a stride forward in advance of the Eroica in compositional genius. Hurwitz points to Beethoven’s treatment of the bass lines in the Fourth to propel the music forward. Relistening to the first movement of the Eroica, I can hear what Hurwitz is getting at; the bass lines are frequently static, with most of the action happening in the upper melodies, and as a result the movement gives the impression of a somewhat heavy-handed obsessiveness, very far from the genial and loving world of the Fourth. Too, the formal proportions of the Eroica are a bit lopsided, with a very long funeral march slow movement and a scherzo and finale that don’t seem to have much to do with the previous movements. The Fourth, with its classically balanced structure, is in some ways a more cohesive work. At the very least, it’s in no way inferior to the symphonies that surround it. And its classicism is on a larger scale than previously attempted by Haydn and Mozart; it’s a kind of super-classicism, informed by early Romantic sentiment especially in the great slow movement.
In short, the Fourth Symphony is no throwback to the simplicity of a bygone age. On the contrary, it is a progressive work—built on the heritage of the past—that shows Beethoven’s growing skill in creating integrated, emotionally compelling compositions. It is a sophisticated piece, which among other things made possible the accomplishments of the Fifth Symphony. It is not an anomaly in Beethoven’s output but a true link between two masterpieces.
In fact, Beethoven wrote the Fourth at more or less the same time as the Fifth, in the summer and early autumn of 1806 while he was staying at the country estate of his patron, Prince Lichnowsky. Having started the Fifth, he actually set it aside to work on the Fourth, a very different work. Scholars have speculated on the reasons for this, including that Beethoven may have intended to dedicate it to another nobleman, Count Oppersdorff, who maintained a private orchestra at his estate and wanted a new symphony from the young master. In any event, the Fourth Symphony was premiered in Vienna in 1807 at the town house of another of Beethoven’s patrons, Prince Lobkowitz.
Critics often analyze Beethoven’s nine symphonies as a “cycle.” The assumption is that the “cycle” of a composer’s symphonies represents a coherent plan or an aesthetic whole. This is rarely the case, however. More often a composer’s symphonies are like a roadmap of his artistic development, full of progress and bumps. Beethoven’s First Symphony is an apprentice, sub-Haydnesque work, light and quick and amusing. The Second shows more growth in power and mastery and the art of symphonic argument—the art of telling a “story” in purely abstract musical terms, the goal of Western symphonic music as developed by the Viennese classical masters.
It’s often claimed that Beethoven alternated “heavy” symphonies (the odd numbered ones) with “lighter” or “lighthearted” ones (the even-numbered ones, including the Pastoral Sixth, the Eighth, and the Fourth). This pattern does not altogether hold true. The Fourth is not lightweight, much less inconsequential; it has the power and forcefulness of Beethoven at his best. But because it wears its virtues modestly it tends to be overlooked.
This symphony is full of original touches. Take the very opening. Instead of the forceful chords that kickstart the Eroica, or the starkly direct “fate” motif of the Fifth, we have a slow, dark, eerie and brooding introduction that seems to tiptoe on cat’s feet. I hear echoes of the opening “chaos” music of Haydn’s Creation in this introduction. One writer says that it is as if the music is groping its way toward the light. Haydn often started his symphonies with a slow, portentous introduction like this, but Beethoven conceives his on an altogether grander scale. There’s almost no melody in this intro, just fragmentary motifs and color and atmosphere—an original conception for a symphonic opening, where previous composers tended to hit us with the main themes head-on.
The contrast between the slow introduction and the main body of the movement is like the contrast between the darkness of twilight and the brilliance of a fireworks display—truly startling. I never tire of hearing how the Allegro vivace springs out of the preceding gloom. Beethoven launches his theme with a repeated, upward sweeping motif in the strings—again, more a gesture than an actual tune—which in turn is preceded by what can only be described as a brilliant shaft of light in the whole orchestra as we finally hit on a solid major chord.
This Allegro vivace is full of energy, humor, surprises, suspense. When the noted Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly leads it on his recording, he makes it sound almost like a comic opera overture. We are reminded that “great” music can be light, and it is no less great for that. Beethoven has transfigured many of the classic traits of “Papa” Joseph Haydn, raising them to a sublime level. Later on there is a strikingly imaginative use of a soft timpani roll—like distant thunder—and of surprising modulations (shifting from key to key in the journey back to the tonic or home key) to create a moment of suspense in the transition from the development section to the restatement of the main theme.
The second movement Adagio is one of Beethoven’s most expansively beautiful and serenely lyrical creations; Berlioz said that the violins’ broad opening melody—with its heartbeat-like rhythmic underpinning—could only have been composed by the Archangel Michael. Other critics hear the movement as a love song or romance, reflecting one of the composer’s ardent love affairs of the period. We are reminded that Beethoven could be just as elegant and songful as Mozart when he wanted to be. There is a delightful use of woodwind solos, which stand out from the orchestra like colorful gems. For me, listening to this Adagio is like taking a meditative walk through a landscape of rolling hills. You don’t have to wait for Symphony No. 6 to hear Beethoven’s pastoral side.
The third movement is for me the prototypical Beethoven scherzo (Italian for joke or trick) with its rude offbeat accents—indeed, syncopations that keep you delightfully off balance are an overall feature of this symphony. It’s hard to believe that the scherzo (especially this one!) evolved out of the polite and courtly minuet. This particular scherzo is expanded in its form; Beethoven repeats the “trio” section and circles back to the main theme twice. This demonstrates again the bigness of this symphony and is a device Beethoven would employ in later symphonies. He was always enlarging and expanding classical models, making them accomplish more things. The scampering, fun-and-games finale with its irrepressible high spirits again raises the spirit of Haydn to a new level. This finale always puts me in mind of children frolicking on the lawn of a bright spring morning; it is the perfect summation of a perfect symphony.
There’s indeed something archetypal about this entire work, which seems to illustrate what the classical symphony is all about. The Fourth has long been one of my favorite symphonies, favorite works of Beethoven, and favorite pieces of music.
Perhaps it’s harder to get hold of what the Fourth is “about” than it is for most others of the Big Nine, which offer clearer clues as to their message. Think of the heroic Third; the Fifth with its powerful crisis and resolution; the Sixth with its idyllic celebration of nature and country life; the dance-based Seventh; and, of course, the Ninth with its choral ode to joy and brotherhood.
In contrast, the Fourth has no programmatic titles nor much of a history of extramusical interpretation. In this respect it’s similar to the F-major Eighth Symphony; but the jocular and classically oriented Eighth lacks the weight of the Fourth. Most listeners accept the first two symphonies as documents of Beethoven’s growth as a symphonic composer out of the world of Haydn and Mozart. The Fourth is on a different plane altogether. Beethoven is clearly no longer an apprentice but an accomplished master. But what is he trying to say in this symphony?
Hurwitz, I think, has put his finger on the central emotional quality of the Fourth and why it has been neglected. In a word, it embodies happiness and joy. The Fourth is radiantly joyful music, filled with sunlight, humor, charm, serenity, and contentment—accentuated by the key of B-flat, considered in Beethoven’s day a bright and happy key. Hurwitz has suggested—and I agree with him—that happiness is an underrated emotional quality in music. Overinfluenced by a popular form of late Romanticism, we tend to overvalue angst and gloom as the deepest forms of expression in art and give short shrift to joy, serenity, or innocence. Let us not get mired in the muck of life; let us remember the Paradise we lost and the Heaven we are aspiring to. The Fourth brings us something of this happy vision. But, Hurwitz adds, Beethoven’s happiness in the Fourth—a happiness experienced in spite of Beethoven’s growing deafness and isolation—is a happiness with many dimensions and sub-moods. It is a deep, a textured happiness.
Each of Beethoven’s symphonies is singular. The Fifth and Pastoral will always hold a place in my heart, and of course I recognize the greatness of the Eroica and Ninth. The celebrated Seventh, heaven help me, sounds repetitive and predictable to me now, but maybe someday I will applaud it again. I am still figuring out the offbeat, playful Eighth. The first two symphonies are to me signposts on the course of Beethoven’s journey rather than fully realized masterworks.
But the Fourth keeps growing in stature. Stressing the “betweenness” of this work is a mistake; it is a great symphony in its own right, with no apologies. It should not be defined in terms of what it is not, but in terms of what it gloriously is. For myself, I will always carry a banner for Beethoven’s Fourth.
*This essay was first published at The Imaginative Conservative and is republished here with gracious permission.
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