Symphony No. 4 in Bb Major, op. 60

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        This symphony, along with the first and second symphonies of Beethoven, has not nearly the reputation of the rest of them. It especially stands in great contrast to its immediate predecessor, the monumental third—the “Eroica,” a work that changed forever the significance of the genre. Any great work of art must be judged by its intrinsic qualities, yet it often is illuminating to consider it in the context of the life of the artist. Beethoven finished this symphony in 1806 at a propitious time in his life; he was thirty-six years old, and widely recognized for his genius. Moreover, he had just finished a series of significant compositions that, had he never composed again, alone would have been sufficient to establish his reputation permanently. They include: his opera, Fidelio; the piano sonatas “Pathetique,” “Moonlight,” “Waldstein,” and “Appassionata;” the “Rasumovsky” quartets; the violin concerto; the first four piano concertos; and, of course, the aforementioned “Eroica.” What is more, he had endured some of his typically hopeless infatuations with unobtainable women, and was gradually coming to terms with his deafness—having considered suicide. And then comes the charming, light, fourth symphony, that for all the world seems like a reversion to the style of some ten years earlier when Joseph Haydn was the toast of the world and Beethoven was a journeyman.

        The symphony begins with a slow introduction—a Haydnesque touch—that mysteriously wanders through some pretty remote keys: Bb minor and Gb major and minor. It concludes with a wonderful example of a Beethoven crescendo into the triumphal allegro of the movement proper. Note throughout this movement his imaginative use of the wind instruments in thematic statements. The slow movement eschews Beethoven’s wont to manipulate and develop, and simply unwinds a beautiful melody over a throbbing accompaniment. The usual dance-like third movement—a Beethovenian scherzo—entertains with his characteristic manipulation of accents that surprise. Ever the innovator—even in this modest work—he expands the usual form from three parts to five, more or less repeating the last two sections. The last movement is a kind of perpetual motion of continuous sixteenth notes, driving merrily along to a happy ending.

        Although this symphony sits in the middle of works with considerable gravitas, Beethoven obviously felt a need to compose a cheerful work of affirmation as relief. It is not light in quality, only in mood, and reveals to us a side of the stormy and enigmatic composer that, while rare, is nonetheless genuine.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan