Beethoven’s 4th Symphony—Does It Really Hold Together?

It’s fun to argue with friends about Beethoven’s fourth symphony. You start by suggesting that the four movements don’t really hold together so well. Then wait for fireworks. Musicians passionately defend neglected or less-loved masterworks, and Beethoven’s 4th is the only one of his symphonies that remotely qualifies as “lesser known.” But there it sits, almost anonymous, between the mighty Eroica 3rd and the incomparable 5th. The Pastoral 6th is loved by everyone, as is the great dance Symphony 7, with its wildly popular slow movement. And who doesn’t love the humorous Symphony 8 with its metronome joke? (Beethoven professed this to be the favorite of his symphonies).  The choral 9th is in a class of its own. Heck, even the 1st and 2nd—those masterful and witty summations of the classic era— are better known than the 4th.  

So what’s the 4th’s ‘problem?’ Of course, friends insist the problem lies with me. But discussing this ‘problem’ might perhaps leads to a deeper understanding of the piece.  So…is it poorly composed? Of course not. It’s as deeply thought through as anything Beethoven wrote. And each movement is an absolute gem.

Further, it also has the stamp of originality so central to his other influential works. Start with the remarkable slow introduction to the symphony. Atmospheric, somber, mysterious, brooding—the orchestra discovers a whole new mode of expression. Notably absent are themes and melodies, just rich, slowly unfolding harmonies. Nothing to hum! Mere fragments. This mysterious musical texture inspired many later composers, including Brahms and especially Mahler, who began his own first symphony virtually quoting this opening of the Beethoven 4th.

 The slow romantic second movement is equally original, with its “heartbeat” accompaniment, an anxious rhythm to one of Beethoven’s most emotional and compelling melodies.  In it we can hear the inspiration for much of Chopin and Mendelssohn.  

Then there is the originality of the third movement scherzo, Beethoven’s idea of a “structural” joke, where the trio is played not once, but twice, and then threatens to sound even a third time, as if we are caught in a never-ending loop. Then abruptly the music ends! This was Beethoven’s solution to lengthen the minuet dance form so as to balance the growing structural length he demanded in his other symphonic movements.

But to my main point, unlike his other symphonies, the character of each movement is remarkably different and, at least on the surface, there seems to be no connection between them. Even within the first movement, the somber slow introduction feels and sounds like it is a different piece entirely than the fast jovial music that follows. Further, that mysterious mood from the introduction never really reappears later in the symphony. So what is it about? Why does he start the symphony that way? The second movement is a romantic tone poem, a self-contained love story, with lyricism and drama forming such a different fabric than the first movement. Then again without any apparent connection, the third movement unfolds a comical, syncopated country dance, followed by a tour de force finale that explodes boisterous, effusive scales and passagework tumbling out at break-neck speed.  These four movements sound so completely different from each other, could we not imagine each of them belonging to four different symphonies?

That’s my challenge. Tell me why not! Post your comments below. Then I’ll share what I think does connect this music together.