Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony has the misfortune of being, as Robert Schumann put it, “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” Because Beethoven seemingly backed away from the drama of the Third and Fifth Symphonies, many of his admirers later found the Fourth to be a puzzling regression for the composer. Numerous attempts have been made to connect its placid mood to Beethoven’s personal life. Hypotheses range from inspiration due to an engagement (a fallacy concocted by his first biographer) or a possible relationship to the infamous “Immortal Beloved” letters (which actually date from nearly ten years after the Fourth’s premiere).
Nonetheless, the Fourth Symphony is the most rarely heard of Beethoven’s symphonies, often performed solely during complete cycles. It is, however, a work that neither requires nor demands excuses. Alexander Thayer called it, “the most perfect in form of all the symphonies.” Rather than returning to an earlier style, Beethoven applied the emotional and harmonic lessons from his “Eroica” Symphony to the Classical symphonic form, and set about mastering the lessons he had learned from the teacher whom he one time scorned, Franz Josef Haydn.
The symphony opens with a slow introduction, absent in the “Eroica” but present in many of Haydn’s late symphonies. The highly Romantic gestures in the introduction suggest the generally buoyant nature of the movement, with rushing scales in the violins playfully matched in the woodwinds. The second movement, wistful rather than somber, is driven largely by a dance rhythm, the “Scottish snap,” slowed to reflect the nostalgic mood. The third movement is labeled “Minuetto.” but its outbursts recall a jocular Haydnesque scherzo. The finale returns to the sonata form of the first movement with redoubled enthusiasm. The violins rarely rest from their torrent of sixteenth notes, which the rest of the orchestra, particularly the bassoons and clarinets, find too compelling to resist.
Performed by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra on 4/29/09
Edited by Marian Wilson Kimber