Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading Beethoven's 4th

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 4 in B-flat in 1806, after he had already begun work on his Fifth Symphony. Some say he wrote it on a paid commission from a Silesian count who had heard Beethoven's Second and thought it was great. (In this regard the count and I have something in common overagainst the general run of Beethoven admirers.) And so he created one of the great misunderstood and underappreciated masterpieces of his age, a work well in keeping with the heroic pretensions of his Third and Fifth symphonies, yet widely regarded as paling between them. Its neighbors certainly cast towering shadows. But I believe Beethoven's Fourth is a work of equal daring and assertiveness, a technically challenging musical milestone that ought to be appreciated for its combination of subtlety and directness, complexity and profundity, as well as enjoyed for its sheer masculine joyfulness.

Movement I begins with an at first ominous Adagio introduction, setting a mood of agonizing anticipation while foreshadowing themes heard throughout the symphony. This concludes with a very loud lead-in to the Allegro vivace (fast and lively) sonata. Launched by explosive, "scooping" gestures, the first theme skips and hops all over the place. This perky theme, introduced in the violins, moves first to the bassoons during a quiet passage with a violin countermelody, then moves again to the lower strings in a triumphant passage that gave the bass players of Beethoven's day a rare run for their money. A brief syncopated passage introduces a transitional theme, a lithe shepherd's-pipe sort of thing that flits from one instrument and register to another before the very emphatic dominant cadence. The F major second theme, introduced by the clarinets, partakes of the same noble simplicity as the themes of his Eroica symphony. The sonata's exposition wraps up with a thrilling codetta harking back to the opening "scoopy" explosions and the syncopated transition material.

Seamlessly flowing out of the repeat of the exposition, the perky first theme leads off the development. Things quiet down suddenly. Beethoven toys with the scooping figure, then brings back the perky theme with a lyrical new countermelody. Then he juxtaposes old perky with some louder scoops in a rare (for this work) passage of tragic melodrama. Finally, he pulls the scooping theme to pieces and plays with the pieces, before building up to a triumphant recap. Note how strikingly different the transition passage sounds this time, especially the part leading up to the shepherd's pipe tune. The clarinet theme and codetta follow, reminding you of how much material Beethoven laid out in the exposition and how little he actually used in the development. Finally, the scoops return, signaling a coda that consists entirely of one elaborate, extended, final cadence based on the perky theme from the first group.

Movement II, marked Adagio, is a slow sonata in E-flat. The exposition, which is not repeated, begins with a quiet moment of dominant-tonic "ta-da"-ing, which sounds at first like a bit of accompaniment sneaking in ahead of a broad, lyrical violin melody. The "ta-da" figure turns out to be far more significant, however - as its repetition by the full orchestra in unison, including tympani, soon attests. The violin melody is then repeated by the wind instruments over the same accompaniment, which now really seems more like a countertheme. This time, instead of the tutti "ta-da," this dual theme is answered by a transitional passage that goes back and forth between two contrasting moods, including one that has always reminded me of a boat pitching and rolling on choppy seas. After this a second long, lyrical theme is introduced by the clarinet, followed by a codetta with a nostalgic tune announced by the bassoon. This builds up to a forceful conclusion before yielding to the development section.

The development begins by restating the original duet between the "ta-da"-ing lower strings and the lyrical, expansive violins. When this apparent returning to the beginning reaches the tutti ta-da, however, it turns a new corner into a stormy, minor-key realm. The texture tantalizingly thins to two lines of violins alone, then Beethoven pulls apart the ta-da theme and its lyrical counterpart and puts these fragments through a few instrumental and tonal transformations. The recap begins with the violin melody in the flutes, moving directly to the transition with its alternating, contrasting ideas, then the clarinet theme, and then the codetta with the horns leading off on the nostalgic bit this time. Just when it seems the movement could end without any further ado, Beethoven adds a coda that begins with the flute again singing the first theme. I gather this is a sort of musical joke, because as soon as you glance at your watch and mutter something not-so-nice about pieces going on endlessly, the lyrical theme is interrupted by arpeggios rising and falling through different sections of the orchestra. This sounds decidedly like "wrapping up" music, building to set of solid closing chords that nevertheless pause for one last quiet "ta-da" moment, as if Beethoven (always one to insist on the last word) heard your muttering and muttered back.

Movement III, "Allegro vivace" (fast and lively), is definitely a scherzo - a quick, brilliant piece without a hint of minuet or any other dance - which is one of the ways the symphonies of Beethoven's age broke with the age of Haydn. Filled with rhythmic surprises and harmonic quirks, this scherzo is a strong flavor, and no mistake! The vestigial trio - for the form of the movement remains the same as one of Haydn's symphonic minuets - flows in a slower channel, building from playful triviality to majestic grandeur, before the main scherzo returns in all the dazzle of its rebellion against your rhythmic and harmonic expectations. But the trio also returns, as in Beethoven's 7th, but not something that was frequently done at the time. After the third time through the scherzo, Beethoven ends the movement with a most economical coda: two horn notes, followed by a single chord!

Movement IV, "Allegro ma non troppo" (roughly translated, "quickly, but not so as to lose control") begins quietly with a gossipy theme. This quickly gives way to a transition containing ideas easier to reconcile with the Beethoven we know from the Fifth Symphony, as well as a theme cleverly borrowed from the first movement. But almost immediately, he unveils a guilelessly cheerful second theme. Just as swiftly (owing to the incredible economy Beethoven displays throughout this symphony) we find ourselves in codettaland, bombarded by emphatic chords and a few contrastingly chirpy phrases. All this is repeated before the development begins. Beethoven plays around with the gossipy first theme and then its noble, transitional partner; then he alternates between fragments of each while passing through a variety of keys.

At the end of the development, the movement comes to a harsh, minor-key climax before relaxing into a varied recap of the opening part. In this recap, Beethoven expands the transition passage, making his clever borrowing of the first movement's "perky theme" really jump out at you. You might also notice that this movement, like the first, poses some challenges to the lower string players. It is definitely a symphony that demands a "virtuoso orchestra." It ends with a coda that begins, once again, with a seeming return to the beginning of the movement. We're not fooled, because Beethoven has played that joke on us before; so we need not mutter even when he stops at the height of what are obviously closing chords to review the movement's themes one last time. But he may yet fake you out when still another set of obvious closing chords stop cold, and Beethoven lingers sentimentally over a slowed-down version of the gossipy theme, before a truly final rush.

Beethoven's Fourth is a symphony that engages the audience in a duel of wit, challenging you to trace its themes back to its all-revealing slow intro, dazzling you with its vitality and wealth of ideas, occasionally puzzling you with its unusual shapes and colors, and more than once allowing you to run alongside, only to stop cold to snicker behind your back as you rush ahead. It shows that being a great, romantic artist wasn't always about fist-shaking tirades and elegiac swoons; for sometimes, romantic greatness can be recognized by the size of its belly-laugh.

EDIT: In the video below, Herbert von Karajan conducts (I think) the Berlin Philharmonic in the 4th Symphony:

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