Beethoven 4 & 7

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

When modern listeners think of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies, there are undoubtedly those that come to mind more readily than others. Indeed, the Fifth’s unmistakable short-short-short-long motif and the Ninth’s stirring “Ode to Joy” chorus are some of the most recognizable melodies ever penned. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, is the least known and least performed of his symphonies. The Fourth’s placement and overall tone contributes to its relative obscurity: sandwiched between the monumental Third and the powerful Fifth, the Fourth is generally lightweight and cheerful, lacking the same dramatic punch and extramusical associations as its neighbors. Robert Schumann aptly called the work “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” For all its lack of comparative appreciation, Beethoven’s Fourth is inarguably a masterwork. The compositional language is both assuredly and appealingly Beethovenian, including the driving forward momentum, brilliant development of small musical ideas, and unusual yet striking harmonic relationships that are all hallmarks of Beethoven’s style.

Composed over about one month in the summer of 1806, Symphony No. 4 was the result of a commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff, a relative of Beethoven’s patron. While a visitor in the Count’s home, Beethoven heard his own Second Symphony performed by Oppersdorff’s court orchestra. The Count was such a fan of this work that he soon paid Beethoven to compose one specifically for him (this perhaps explains the similarity in style between the two symphonies). The work premiered at a private concert in Vienna in March of 1807 and was dedicated to Count Oppersdorff.

Beethoven’s Fourth spans four movements and has a performance time of about 35 minutes. The work begins with a slow introduction featuring unsettled dissonance and heavy ambiguity. The first movement proper acts as light bursting forth from this shadowy introduction; while firmly controlled, its forward motion is buoyant, rousing, and energetic. The second movement Adagio is an expressive rondo, the tender mood of its main theme underscored with constant motion in the accompaniment. A scherzo with a five-part structure (rather than the traditional three parts) follows: the first section, heard three times, is bounding and dance-like, while the slower second section, played twice, lilts along in the winds and strings. A dazzling perpetual motion finale then takes over, strong despite its lightness, and races headlong toward the stirring conclusion of this small but mighty symphony.

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

We’ll now fast-forward five years from the composition of the Fourth Symphony: Beethoven had two more symphonies under his belt, the victorious Fifth and the “Pastoral” Sixth, as well as scores of other smaller works, and was quickly coming to be regarded as the leading living composer of the day. Unfortunately, the composer continually struggled with his health. In 1811 Beethoven became afflicted with a fever and severe headaches and traveled to the Bohemian spa town of Teplice on his doctor’s orders for several seasons throughout 1811 and 1812. It was during this time of recuperation that he composed the bulk of his bold and substantial Seventh Symphony.

Beethoven conducted the work’s premiere in December 1813 at a benefit concert for soldiers who had been wounded in the battle of Hanau several months prior. The concert was wildly successful, mostly due to another piece on the program, Wellington’s Victory, composed during the late summer of 1813 to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte in the battle of Vittoria. Symphony No. 7, however, was also very well received (the second movement in particular was immediately established as artistically brilliant and is today often performed separate from the symphony as a standalone piece). The popularity of the new works was no doubt bolstered by patriotism in the wake of France’s defeat.

This 40-minute symphony features a celebratory mood, driving rhythms, and a sense of ceaseless forward motion so prevalent in Beethoven’s symphonic works. The work begins with a lengthy introduction; indeed, it was the longest of any symphonic introduction yet written. A single repeated note leads directly into the ambitious first movement which is lively and dance-like, brimming with vitality and vigor with strong dotted rhythms and suddenness in both dynamic and harmonic shifts. While a symphony’s second movement is typically slow, it is not so in Beethoven’s Seventh; the Allegretto’s tempo is only relaxed in comparison to that of its neighbors. This movement’s beauty proved immensely popular among audiences of Beethoven’s time, one musical journal calling it “the crown of modern instrumental music.” The Presto scherzo continues to drive home the dance associations in its five-part structure, but the revelry is not complete until the Allegro con brio finale begins. This fourth and final movement is the most forceful of them all, building to a frenzy that is at once both wild and tightly controlled with supreme rhythmic accuracy.