Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60

As Beethoven was putting the final touches to his Symphony No. 5 at the country estate of a patron, he received a commission to compose a symphony "in the style of Symphony No. 2." He considered just dedicating his fifth to his new patron, but he had already shown much of it to his host. So, he decided to halt his work on the fifth and start a new work for Count Oppersdorff. Essentially, the fourth and fifth symphonies were composed concurrently, with the bulk of the fifth completed before work on the fourth began.

Robert Greenberg dedicates a full four lectures to this symphony, claiming it does not get the performance or air play that it deserves. After spending a few weeks with the work, as well as his lectures, I have to agree.

The symphony starts with a quiet, mysterious introduction that gives no hint to what is about to follow. Theme one then comes out like a shot, starting with a "masculine" melody followed by a less enthusiastic, "feminine" scale, a combination often heard in the classical works of Mozart and Haydn. This is followed by a "theme group" which is essentially two additional themes, the second of which I find the most pleasing. There are also measures featuring clarinet and bassoon. Greenberg finds the bassoon part to be a bit humorous, but he seems to feel that way about the bassoon in general.

The trio in the third movement evokes the sounds of a rustic, village band, much like the one heard in his sixth symphony.

There are other Classical period-style passages to the symphony, however Beethoven twists and bends them to fit the self-expression mantra he began in his third symphony. Other Romantic era composers, such as Brahms, will follow in Beethoven's tracks, using Classical forms and techniques to the extent they serve the purpose of the composer's intent.

It's a great symphony, and Greenberg points out that, had anyone else written it, it would be considered one of that composer's masterworks. But it gets overshadowed by the fifth, sixth, and ninth symphonies to a great extent, as well as to a minor extent of the post-third symphony era. There's a lot in the symphony, which is why I've spent so much time with it before blogging.

Speaking of which, if I keep going at the rate I'm going I'll never get through the collection. I hope to speed things up in the future. In the meantime, search out a copy of Beethoven's Fourth; it is a fun work. I'm sure Count Oppersdorff was pleased.


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