Composed 1806, premièred 1807
Dedicated to Franz Joachim Reichsgraf von Oppersdorff1
1. Adagio. Allegro vivace
3. Allegro molto e vivace
4. Allegro ma non troppo
Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
The Fourth Symphony op. 60 has always been outshone by the great heroic symphonies such as the Third, the so-called "Eroica", the Fifth, the so-called "Destiny Symphony" and the Sixth Symphony, also called "Pastoral Symphony". That is, however, not quite fair as a reviewer of the "Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung" (General Musical Newspaper) concluded in 1812 and called the symphony a clear and straight composition characterised by the ingenuity and energy which was so typical for Beethoven's earlier works.
The Fourth Symphony was probably played for the first time during one of the private concerts of Prince Lobkowitz. The programme included the first three Beethoven symphonies as well as a fourth one, still unknown, as the "Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung" announced on March 18th, 1807. One year later, Beethoven dedicated the symphony to Franz Joachim Reichsgraf von Oppersdorff (1778-1818) whom he had met on a journey with Prince Lichnowsky at the Prince's castle Grätz close to Troppau. Oppersdorff lived in Oberglogau, not far from Lichnowsky, and had his own professional orchestra. The Count was a passionate musician and Beethoven intended to dedicate the Fifth Symphony op. 67 to him. According to the customs of that time, dedications were not free of charge. Apart from his name being mentioned on the sheet, the buyer also obtained all rights of disposal for a certain time (usually six months). In exchange, the composer received a sum both parties agreed on. In early 1808, Oppersdorff made several payments in advance for the dedication. When Beethoven then sold the symphony to Prince Lobkowitz (out of financial distress as he apologetically explained Oppersdorff in a letter on November 1st, 1808), he offered the Prince the Fourth Symphony op. 60 instead. (J.R.)
Robert Schumann described this symphony as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants," and started the long-standing tradition which holds that somehow Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies are less profound than the odd-numbered ones. This may seem true at first glance, but there is much that Schumann's analysis leaves unsaid. While the lambent beauty of the Adagio might suggest the kind of Classicism that the Eroica transcended, one should remember that, in many senses, the Fourth, emerging from an intensely foreboding, and even tragic, introduction, is no less heroic than either the Eroica or the Fifth. Dark-hued and intensely chromatic strivings pull the music from B flat minor toward the unison F which heralds the beginning of the sunny Allegro vivace exposition. While Weber criticized the deliberately sparse-sounding introduction, Tovey sensed its immense stature, writing of the "sky-dome vastness" of its harmonic progression. The Adagio, a sonata structure minus development, begins with an insistent rhythm which recurs several times. At the start, the violins sing out the sublimely reflective principal motif, a tenderly lyrical utterance which stands in direct contrast to the opening figure. These two contrasting elements are always at the hub of the movement, the expressive violin theme later becoming the subject of variations. The reprise of the second group then leads to the highly atmospheric coda. What follows is the Scherzo; a bucolic main theme suggests the rustic folk-dance idioms that Beethoven knew well; nevertheless, the movement surpasses the Eroica's Scherzo in power and dynamism. It should be noted that this is the first of Beethoven's symphonic scherzos to feature a repeat of the trio section, which is significant, given the massive nature of the surrounding material. The scherzo is heard one last time, now abridged, before the shattering final coda with its three-bar horn solo. Expanded scherzos also figure in several of Beethoven's later symphonies (the exception is the Eighth), and sketches suggest the technique was originally envisaged for the Fifth. Opening with a series of mercurial sixteenth note fragments from which the first subject group is derived, the final movement is "perpetuum mobile." As the movement unfolds, the oboe's second theme provides contrast with the initial statement, the relentless development section posing serious technical challenges to the lower instruments: bassoon, cellos, and basses. In the coda, surely one of Beethoven's most humorous inventions, the theme is passed around at half speed after a "false" ending has been reached, and finally brushed aside dramatically as cellos and basses plummet down the scale before the striking final bars for full orchestra.
(All Music Guide)