Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) composed the 4th Symphony in the summer of 1806 and it premiered in 1807 at the home of  Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.  The work is more in the style of Beethoven's first two symphonies, especially when compared the third (Eroica) written just before it. Beethoven seemed to have to keep variety in his writing, as many times a complex, major work like the Eroica would be followed by something in a different style. The fourth is such a work, and as the 8th symphony stands between the two giant 7th and 9th symphonies, so too the 4th symphony stands between the two giant 3rd and 5th symphonies.

Beethoven begins the 4th symphony with a dark  and mysterious slow introduction that is in marked contrast to the music of the rest of the first movement.  The second movement is taken at an andante pace, with sweet tunes being punctuated by rather rough burst from the orchestra. The third movement has the qualities of both a scherzo and minuet. The last movement is taken at a quick pace, rather like the types of fast finales preferred by Haydn.

To the listener of Beethoven's time, even this symphony that is perhaps 'tamer' than what he wrote in the 3rd symphony, was still something unique. As a critic of the time wrote, "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."

It seems as though Beethoven was ever baffling his listeners, so unalike were his works. Now that we have so much time since they have been written, and so many opportunities to hear the works much more often than anyone did in Beethoven's time,  our ears have no doubt had a chance to 'get used' to Beethoven's uniqueness. And it is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, but that it breeds complacency. The uniqueness and power of Beethoven's music is still there, if we can manage to actively listen to it, learn from it, and question what we think we know about it.  The music certainly deserves and warrants it.  There is really nothing like a Beethoven Symphony.  Even another Beethoven symphony, for they all are worlds unto themselves. That certainly includes the 4th.

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