Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate. His baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770, and he died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began work on his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1805 and completed the score early the next year. He was soloist in its first performance, a private one in March 1807 at the Vienna town house of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz (the Symphony No. 4 was introduced on the same occasion). He made his last appearance as a concerto soloist in the first public performance of this music, which was part of the famous Akademie in the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, when the Fifth and Pastoral symphonies and the Choral Fantasy had their premieres along with the first hearings in Vienna of the Mass in C major and the concert aria “Ah! perfido,” not to forget one of Beethoven’s remarkable solo improvisations. The first North American performance was given on February 4, 1854, at the Boston Odeon by Robert Heller with Carl Bergmann conducting the Germania Musical Society. The orchestra consists of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The second movement is for strings only, and the trumpets and drums make their first appearance in the finale. Emanuel Ax plays the cadenzas by Beethoven.
The history of the contredanses is complex. The sketches for nos. 8 and 12 date from 1791/92 (before Beethoven arrived in Vienna), nos. 3 and 4 from 1795-96 (the years of the publications of his Opuses 1 and 2), and nos. 2, 7, 9-11 from 1801-02. The first edition of the complete set for orchestra dates from April-June 1802; what is presumably Beethoven’s own arrangement of six of the dances for “harpsichord or Piano Forte” appeared in April 1802. Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl was involved in some mysterious fashion in nos. 8 and 12; it is unclear whether he actually composed them or merely arranged his brother’s sketches. Equally unclear is the date of the premiere of the individual dances within the set, since they were composed individually over a ten-year period. Most scholars assume that the majority was intended for the popular winter balls in Vienna.
Beethoven wrote the Symphony No. 4 in the summer and early fall of 1806. As noted above, it was first performed in March 1807, in Vienna. The first performance in the United States was given on November 24, 1849, by the New York Philharmonic Society, Theodor Eisfeld conducting. The score calls for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 58
Charles Rosen remarks in The Classical Style that “the most important fact about the concerto form is that the audience waits for the soloist to enter, and when he stops playing they wait for him to begin again.” Most of the Fourth Piano Concerto’s early listeners would have expected Beethoven to begin his new concerto as he began his previous ones and virtually all others they knew, that is, with a tutti lasting a couple of minutes and introducing several themes, after which the soloist would make a suitably prepared entrance.
Concerto is a form of theater. Beethoven, an experienced and commanding pianist, had a keen feeling for that, and his first three piano concertos (not counting the one he wrote as a boy of thirteen) and his Violin Concerto, all of which had been heard in Vienna by the spring of 1807, make something quite striking of the first solo entrance. The older Beethoven grew, the more imaginative he became. In the Triple Concerto, a beautiful, problematic, and unpopular work that was completed a couple of years before the Fourth Piano Concerto, the cello enters with the first theme, but a breath later than you expect and with a magical transformation of character. In the Violin Concerto, the solo arises spaciously from the receding orchestra; after that comes the Emperor Concerto, where right at the beginning three plain chords provoke three grand fountains of broken chords, trills, and scales. But it is here, in this most gently spoken and poetic of all his concertos, that Beethoven offers his most radical response to Rosen’s Law—to begin with the piano alone. It is a move without precedent. What is also remarkable is how rarely Beethoven, imitated so often and in so many things, has been copied in this stroke.
What the piano says is as remarkable as its saying anything at all at this point. Sir Donald Tovey recalled Sir George Henschel “happening to glance at a score of the Missa solemnis, open at its first page, putting his finger upon the first chord and saying, ‘Isn’t it extraordinary how you can recognize any single common chord scored by Beethoven?’ ” The orchestra’s exordial chord in the Emperor is an example, and so is the soft, densely voiced, dolce chord with which the piano begins the Concerto in G major. The whole brief phrase is arresting in its subtle rhythmic imbalance, but the still greater wonder is the orchestra’s hushed, sensitive and far‑seeing, harmonically remote response. The persistent three‑note upbeat makes this music tender cousin to the Fifth Symphony (in progress at the same time though completed only two years later). The rhythmic elasticity of the first solo‑and‑orchestra statement‑and-response foreshadows an uncommon range of pace.
The second movement has become the concerto’s most famous. Its comparison to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music was for years attributed to Liszt, though more recently the musicologist Owen Jander has pointed out that it was Adolph Bernard Marx “who first began to bring the Orpheus program of the Fourth Piano Concerto into focus” in his Beethoven biography of 1859. Even earlier than that, in his book On the Proper Performance of All of Beethoven’s Works for Piano (1842), Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny had suggested that “in this movement (which, like the entire concerto, belongs to the finest and most poetical of Beethoven’s creations) one cannot help thinking of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages.”
In this second movement, the orchestra is loud, staccato, in stark octaves. The piano is soft, legato, songful, richly harmonized. At the end, after a truly Orphic cadenza—and Beethoven almost persuades us that he invented the trill expressly for this moment—the orchestra has learned the piano’s way. Only the cellos and basses remember their opening music, but just briefly, and their mutterings are pianissimo.
Until the conclusion of this sublime andante, this is Beethoven’s most quietly scored piano concerto. In the finale, which takes a charmingly Haydnesque, oblique approach to the question of how to resume the work after the evocative scene just played, trumpets and drums appear for the first time. Not that this movement is in any way grand; rather, it is lyrical and witty. It is also, with its two sections of violas, given to outrageously lush sounds—one more surprise in this most subtle, suggestive, and multi‑faceted of Beethoven’s concertos.
Twelve Contredanses for Orchestra, WoO 14
The Twelve Contredanses originated in the rustic English country dance in which the dancers were arranged face to face, “one set against another,” performing prescribed figures in two lines, a circle, or a square. Imported to the French court at the end of the 17th century, it became the most popular French dance of the 18th century, eclipsing the minuet. (The contredanse itself faded in popularity around 1840 in favor of waltzes and polkas.) Contredanses are both in triple and duple meters; according to one 19th-century description, “all that is necessary is that the strains should be in four or eight bar phrases to accompany the several movements, and every need is satisfied.”
Undoubtedly the most famous of the set is no. 7, which features a tune Beethoven used on four occasions: here, the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, The Eroica Variations, and the Eroica Symphony. In 1980 Shin Augustinus Kojima corrected the long-held chronology, arguing that the ballet came first and that Beethoven recycled the melody and famous bass into the contredanse. The beloved tune and its bass part probably originated in Beethoven’s improvisation in April 1800 at the second of his two duels with the brilliant touring pianist Daniel Steibelt, famous for being the first composer to develop pedal markings and for the invention of the tremulando. Trying to humiliate Steibelt, Beethoven grabbed the cello part of one of Steibelt’s piano quintets from a stand, turned it upside down, and used it as the bass for an extended improvisation that resulted in the creation of the lilting tune — William Meredith, Ph.D
Symphony No. 4 in B‑flat major, Opus 60
Beethoven’s work on the Fifth Symphony brackets that on the Fourth. Robert Simpson discusses their relationship in his illuminating booklet on the Beethoven symphonies for the BBC Music Guides: “[The B‑flat major symphony] is highly compact, as the C minor was going to be, yet lighter in character, as if Beethoven, unsure how to release the thing that roared in his head like a caged tiger, turned his attention to less obstreperous inhabitants of his extraordinary domain. If the Eroica is like a noble stallion, the C minor and B‑flat symphonies might be thought of as belonging to the cat family, the one fierce, the other lovable, but both sharing compact suppleness of movement, a dangerous lithe economy that makes them akin, and together, different from their predecessor. The Fourth belongs to the Fifth—and ever so much as in the Stygian darkness of its introduction, abruptly obliterated by vivid light.”
It has often been observed that Beethoven’s even‑numbered symphonies and concertos tend to be more lyrical, less aggressive than their odd‑numbered neighbors. To Robert Schumann, the Fourth Symphony was “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” Beethoven spent the summer of 1806 at the Silesian estate in Grätz of Prince Carl von Lichnowsky, one of the most steadfast and knowledgeable of the composer’s admirers during his early years in Vienna. It was through Lichnowsky that Beethoven met Count Franz von Oppersdorff, to whom he eventually dedicated the new symphony. Oppersdorff maintained an excellent orchestra, insisting that all persons employed in his household be proficient on some instrument.
As Haydn did in most of his last symphonies and as in his own first two, Beethoven begins with a slow preface, and, while the key signature does not admit it, the music is actually in B‑flat minor. The most musical of the guests at the Palais Lobkowitz in 1807 would have been more aware than most of us today of just how slowly this music moves—not so much in terms of notes per minute as in the passage of events. The harmony stands all but still, and the effect of suspended motion is underlined by the pianissimo that lasts—as Beethoven stresses four times—unbroken through the first twelve measures. Those twelve measures lead us, with exquisitely wrought suspense, back to the beginning. The five octaves of B‑flat are sounded just a bit more emphatically than before, but the continuation is the same, a pianissimo expansion of the note G‑flat. The effect of the G‑flat is delicately dissonant, unstable, and the first time Beethoven resolves it quite normally down a half‑step to F, the note that has the most powerful magnetic pull back toward home, to B‑flat. This time, however, Beethoven treats the G‑flat as though it were in no need of resolution and continues by submitting to its own magnetic pull in the direction of B‑natural, which, in the context of a universe whose center has been defined as B‑flat, comes across as an absolutely reckless excursion.
Beethoven finds his way back to the threshold of his proper harmonic home—not, of course, without adventure and suspense—and the first entrance of the trumpets and drums helps push the music into a quick tempo. The material is of an almost studied neutrality. The life of this ebullient allegro resides in the contrast between passages when the harmonies change slowly (as they mostly do) and others in which harmonic territory is traversed at a great rate, in the syncopations, the sudden fortissimo outbursts, and in such colorful details as the stalking half‑notes in pianissimo. The development ventures a few moments of lyric song, but most of the orchestra is impatient to get on and to get back. The task of getting back to the home key and the first theme sends Beethoven into one of his most wonderful passages, in which wit and mystery are deliciously combined.
The Adagio is an expansive, rapt song; rarely does Beethoven insist so often on the direction cantabile. Before the song begins, we hear a measure of ticking accompaniment in the second violins. What is characteristic of Beethoven is the refusal of that accompaniment to disappear. It remains an insistent presence and a fascinating foil to the flowing melodies. Not until the Ninth would Beethoven again write a symphony with a really slow movement.
Concerned with bringing the scherzo in step with the expanding scale of the symphony as a whole, Beethoven makes an extra trip around the scherzo-trio‑scherzo cycle. In the finale, certain of the characters from the first movement reappear, newly costumed, but this last Allegro (ma non troppo) is a more relaxed kind of movement than the first (Allegro vivace).
Having begun with Schumann, we can end with some good words of his: “Yes, love [Beethoven], love him well, but never forget that he reached poetic freedom only through long years of study, and revere his never‑ceasing moral force. Do not search for the abnormal in him, but return to the source of his creativeness. Do not illustrate his genius with the Ninth Symphony alone, no matter how great its audacity and scope, never uttered in any tongue. You can do as much with his First Symphony, or with the Greek‑like slender one in B‑flat major!”—Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to the Symphony’s program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/store. The notes on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphony No. 4 are copyright © San Francisco Symphony and reprinted by permission.
William Meredith, Ph.D.; Director, The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies; Executive Director, The American Beethoven Society and Professor, School of Music and Dance, San Jose State University