The Kennedy Center

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

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Rodda

On November 13, 1805, Napoleon's army entered Vienna. A week later, Beethoven gave the first performance of Fidelio before an audience largely comprising French officers. It failed. The French forces withdrew early the next year, and the local aristocrats, who had fled Vienna before the invasion, returned to their town palaces. Fidelio, extensively revised, was presented again on March 29, 1806, but its reception was still cool. Beethoven spent the summer of 1806 away from Vienna. His first visit was to the ancestral Hungarian estate of his friend Count Brunsvick at Martonvásár, where the Count's sisters, Therese, Josephine and Caroline, were also in residence. Thayer, in his pioneering biography of the composer, spread the rumor that Beethoven and Therese got engaged that May, and that it was under the spell of this love affair that the Fourth Symphony was conceived. In 1890, appeared a book titled Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, from Personal Reminiscences, purporting to be from Therese's hand, which recounted the relationship. It was a hoax. ("The Immortal Beloved," to whom Beethoven wrote three unheaded letters, was convincingly identified in Maynard Solomon's 1977 biography of the composer as Antonie Brentano, a married Viennese noblewoman. Solomon also showed the letters to have been written in 1812, not 1806.) The Fourth Symphony was apparently not a musical love-child, though the country calm of that summer, perhaps the most halcyon time of Beethoven's life, may have influenced the character of the piece. At any rate, he must have been so busy working at the time that he would have had little time for amorous dalliance -- in addition to the painstaking revisions of Fidelio, before the year was out he had completed the "Appassionata" Sonata, the three "Razumovsky" Quartets (Op. 59), the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and the Violin Concerto.

After visiting with the Brunsvicks, Beethoven moved to the summer castle of Prince Lichnowsky at Grätz in Silesia. Lichnowsky introduced him to his neighbor in Ober-Glogau, Count Franz von Oppersdorf, a moneyed aristocrat who placed such importance on his household musical establishment that he would not hire a servant unable to play an instrument. Oppersdorf, an admirer of Beethoven's music, arranged a performance by his private orchestra of the Second Symphony for the composer's visit, and, further, commissioned him to write a new symphony. Beethoven put aside the C minor Symphony (No. 5), already well begun, to work on the commission, and most of the B-flat Symphony was completed during September and October 1806 at Lichnowsky's castle.

The Fourth Symphony was first heard in March 1807 -- but not at Count Oppersdorf's residence. The premiere was given on one of two all-Beethoven concerts sponsored by Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna at which were played the first four symphonies, the Coriolanus Overture, a piano concerto and some arias from Fidelio. Some time thereafter, Beethoven got around to sending a letter to Oppersdorf, apologizing for robbing him of the honor of the work's premiere. The Count was understandably mad, as the terms of the original commission gave him exclusive performing rights to the piece for six months, but Beethoven offered to make amends by dedicating the published score to him, which he did. It is unknown whether the Count's domestic orchestra ever played the piece.

In the Fourth Symphony, Beethoven turned temporarily from the vast expanse and stormy emotions of the "Eroica" and the Fifth Symphonies to a more reserved, classical expression. "A slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants," Robert Schumann called it; "placid and serene -- the most perfect in form of all the symphonies," added Thayer. Berlioz, who idolized Beethoven and wrote extended essays on the symphonies, noted, "The general character of this score is either lively, alert and gay or of a celestial sweetness." It is sweetness subtly tinged with Romantic pathos that opens the Symphony -- a slow introduction that Mahler may have recalled when he wrote his First Symphony. The main theme of the exposition is a buoyant melody, given by the violins, skipping cheerfully among the notes of the opening harmonies. The complementary melody is a snappy tune of Haydnesque jocularity discussed by bassoon, oboe and flute. Inventive elaborations of the main theme occupy the movement's development section. A heightened recall of the earlier melodies and a vigorous coda bring this sunny movement to an end.

Of the second movement, little needs to be added to the words of Berlioz: "It seems to elude analysis. Its form is so pure and the expression of its melody so angelic and of such irresistible tenderness that the prodigious art by which this perfection is attained disappears completely. From the very first bars we are overtaken by an emotion which, towards the close, becomes so overpowering in its intensity that only amongst the giants of poetic art can we find anything to compare with this sublime page of the giant of music."

Though Beethoven called the third movement a minuet, it is really one of his most boisterous scherzos -- "a jokey mixture of bluster and sly humor," according to Antony Hopkins. The scherzo, with its rugged syncopations, sudden harmonic and dynamic shifts and tossing-about of melodic fragments among the orchestral participants, stands in strong contrast to the suave, legato trio. The finale is a whirlwind sonata form with occasional moments of strong expression in its development section.

Of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, British composer and music scholar Robert Simpson wrote, "There is decidedly no trace of crudity or want of dignity in this wonderfully balanced, richly executed score. But its grace is neither maidenly nor Greek; it is that of a giant who performs relaxed athletic movements with gigantic ease and fluency. There are muscles of steel beneath the skin of Beethoven's creature; sometimes they tense and flex with sudden force, though there is rarely more than a hint of sudden irascibility."