For today's listener who knows all of Beethoven's symphonies, it takes some historical imagination to appreciate how his contemporaries successively received these new works and how the composer continually challenged their expectations. From our perspective, the legendary brilliance in particular of the Third, Fifth and Ninth symphonies inevitably tends to eclipse the symphonies around them and obscure how novel other works were when they were first performed.
The challenges began with Beethoven's First Symphony, with its "wrong key" opening. As we heard on the first half of this concert, the Second Symphony was in no way a retreat, as commentary today often suggests, but continued the experimentation. The Third, the mighty "Eroica," clearly marked a turning point in Beethoven's compositional development because of its length, complexity, extra-musical program, and aesthetic ambition. People thought: What would -- what could -- Beethoven do next? One critic from the time offered the following opinion about the Fourth: "That the composer follows an individual path in his works can be seen again in this work; just how far this path is the correct one, and not a deviation, may be decided by others. To me the great master seems here, as in several of his recent works, now and then excessively bizarre, and thus, even for knowledgeable friends of art, easily incomprehensible and forbidding."
A Neglected Work
Biographical and historical accounts often tend to skip over the Fourth and jump ahead to the famous Fifth. Indeed, Beethoven's Fourth is the least known and performed of all of his symphonies (of course, one of the nine has to be) and would probably turn up even less were it not for the sake of completeness on recordings and in performance cycles such as the Philadelphians are undertaking this season.
The relative neglect of the work began in Beethoven's own time. In 1814, when he was at the height of his popular fame and success, a critic for the leading music journal in Europe commented that there were available extended discussions of his works, adding "the master's [Fourth] Symphony in B-flat major has certainly already been briefly and strikingly described several times, but has never been exhaustively reviewed. Does it deserve less than any of the others?" It seems that then, as now, the Fourth was overshadowed. As a perceptive critic remarked in 1811: "On the whole, the work is cheerful, understandable and engaging, and is closer to the composer's justly beloved First and Second symphonies than to the Fifth and Sixth. In the overall inspiration we may place it closer to the Second."
Beethoven wrote the Fourth during the late summer and fall of 1806, while staying in the palace of Count Franz von Oppersdorff in upper Silesia, far away from the bustle of Vienna. The Count employed his own orchestra, which performed the Second Symphony for Beethoven, who soon agreed to write a new symphony for the Count, to whom it was eventually dedicated. The Fourth was premiered at a private concert in the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna, in March 1807, on a program that also included the first performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto (with the composer at the keyboard) and the Coriolan Overture. There was little published commentary at the time. One of the first reviews, in January 1808, generally praised the Symphony: "The first Allegro is very beautiful, fiery and rich in harmony, and the minuet and trio also have a distinct, original character. In the Adagio, one might sometimes wish that the melody were not so much divided up among the various instruments." By the end of Beethoven's life, once contemporaries were accustomed to how far the composer had expanded the boundaries of music, they viewed the Fourth as classical fare. One critic opined: "There are no words to describe the deep, powerful spirit of this work from his earlier and most beautiful period."
A Closer Look
Although Beethoven had not used a slow introduction in the Third Symphony, for the Fourth he returned to one, as he had in his first two symphonies and as were often found in the later symphonies of Haydn, his former teacher. (The Adagio in this case is particularly similar to Haydn's Symphony No. 102, in the same key.) The kind of feature some critics found "bizarre" was the jabbing dissonances that build up in the introduction before a rousing Allegro vivace, rich with melodies.
The Adagio is an expressive and relaxed rondo in E-flat major. The third movement (Allegro vivace) combines elements of Scherzo and Minuet and has the trio section played twice, which creates a five-part structure instead of the usual three-part form. The Symphony concludes with a dazzling perpetual motion Allegro, ma non troppo that nods again to Haydn.
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