Full program notes:
Beethoven Marathon: A more relaxed Beethoven
In the spring of 1806, Beethoven could relax a little. Over the previous three years, virtually all his energy had gone to just two works, the Eroica and his opera Leonore, and with those heroic achievements behind him, he could turn to the other music that had been germinating in his imagination during those three years. Now music poured out of him: the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the three Razumovsky Quartets, and the Violin Concerto were all completed during the summer and fall of 1806. Yet despite this rush of energy, many have noted a calmer quality in this music, and the three works on this program—the Fourth Piano Concerto, Fourth Symphony and Sixth Symphony (composed two years later)—show us a different side of Beethoven, one removed from the furies that drive the Eroica, Fifth Symphony, Coriolan Overture, and Appassionata Sonata.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60
In the summer of 1806 Beethoven accompanied his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky to the prince’s summer palace at Troppau in Silesia. That September, the pair paid a visit to the nearby castle of another nobleman, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The count was a musical enthusiast almost without equal: he maintained a private orchestra at his castle and would hire new staff for the castle only if they played an instrument and could also play in his orchestra. During that visit, the count commissioned a new symphony from the composer, and for him Beethoven composed his Fourth Symphony.
The Fourth Symphony has inevitably been overshadowed by the titanic symphonies on either side of it, a relationship best captured in Schumann’s oft-quoted description of the Fourth as “a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants.” The Fourth does seem at first a relaxation, a retreat from the path blazed by the Eroica, but we need to be careful not to underestimate this music.
The originality of the Fourth Symphony is evident from its first instant: the key signature may say B-flat major, but the symphony opens in B-flat minor. This long introduction keeps us in a tonal fog, but those mists blow away as the music approaches the Allegro vivace. Huge chords lash it forward, and when the main theme leaps out brightly, we recognize it as simply a sped-up version of the slow introduction.
Violins sing the main theme of the Adagio, which Beethoven takes care to mark cantabile. Berlioz’ comments on this melody may seem a little over the top, but they do speak to its air of great calm: “the being who wrote such a marvel of inspiration as this movement was not a man. Such must be the song of the Archangel Michael as he contemplates the world’s uprising to the threshold of the empyrean.” Beethoven may have titled the third movement Minuetto, but that was a misjudgment: this is in every way a scherzo: its outer sections are full of rough edges and blistering energy, and its witty trio is built on a rustic woodwind tune spiced with saucy interjections from the violins. The finale goes like a rocket from its first instant. This movement may be in sonata form, but it feels like perpetual-motion on a pulse of racing sixteenth-notes that hardly ever lets up.
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58
The Fourth Piano Concerto seems an unusually relaxed and lyric piece. But if the surface of this concerto is serene, some unusual things are going on within the music itself, particularly in the relation between piano and orchestra. Beethoven annihilates classical tradition in the first instant of the Allegro moderato by having the solo piano, rather than the orchestra, open the concerto. Only when the piano has stated the opening idea does the orchestra enter to begin the actual exposition. Just as intriguing are the four fundamental notes of the piano’s theme. They outline the same rhythm (three shorts and a downbeat) that would open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, written the following year. But where those four notes blast that symphony to life, here—at a slower tempo—they give the music an easy forward impetus.
Orpheus taming the beasts
Beethoven builds the second movement on a dialogue between the orchestral strings—whose music is gruff, explosive, angry— and the piano, which is serene, calm, and restrained. These exchanges between the rough orchestra and calm piano are one of the most famous moments in music; Liszt compared this movement to Orpheus taming the wild beasts. Gradually the piano “wins” and leads the orchestra to a quiet close that proceeds directly into the rondo-finale.
The finale’s central theme is built on crisp martial rhythms, made all the more effective by being stated so quietly at first. Only after the piano has begun to develop this theme does Beethoven let go, and the orchestra stamps it out to launch the finale on its way.
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68, Pastoral
The Sixth Symphony is unique among Beethoven’s symphonies because it appears to be program music. Beethoven himself gave it the nickname Pastoral and further headed each movement with a descriptive title that seems to tell a story: the arrival in the country, impressions beside a brook, a peasants’ dance which is interrupted by a thunderstorm, and a concluding hymn of thanksgiving once the storm has passed. Some have claimed that romantic music begins with the Pastoral Symphony–they see it as a precursor of such examples of musical painting as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Mendelssohn’s fairyland scenes and Liszt’s tone poems, while others have tried to stage this music, complete with characters, costumes, and scenery.
Beethoven would have been astonished. He had no use for program music or musical portraiture, which he considered cheap trickery. His Sixth Symphony is in classical symphonic forms throughout. Even its “extra” movement, the famous thunderstorm, can be understood as a brief transition between the scherzo and the rondo-finale. And while this symphony refers to something outside the music itself, Beethoven wanted it understood as “an expression of feelings rather than painting.”
The first movement (“Cheerful impressions on arriving in the country”) is built on two completely relaxed themes; these do not offer the contrast that lies at the heart of sonata form, but instead create two complementary “Cheerful impressions.” The second movement (“Scene by the Brook”) is also in a sonata form built on two themes. Over murmuring lower strings, with their suggestion of bubbling water, the two themes sing gracefully. The movement concludes with three brief bird calls, which Beethoven names specifically in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet). The scherzo (“Peasants’ merrymaking”) is a portrait of a rural festival; its vigorous trio echoes the heavy stamping of a peasant dance.
Just as the scherzo is about to repeat, it suddenly veers off in a new direction. Tremulous strings and distant murmurings lead to the wonderful storm, which remains—nearly two centuries after its composition—the best musical depiction ever of a thunderstorm. Gradually the storm moves off, and the music proceeds directly into the last movement, where solo clarinet and horn outline the tentative call of a shepherd’s pipe in the aftermath of the storm. Beethoven then magically transforms this call into his serene main theme, given out by the violins. If ever there has been music that deserved to be called radiant, it is this singing theme, which unfolds like a rainbow spread across the still-glistening heavens.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani and strings