Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro vivace
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Menuetto: Allegro vivace
Movement 4: Allegro ma non troppo
The symphony’s slow introduction is set mostly in the minor. This mysterious Adagio, which only gradually gropes its way towards the light, gives no hint of the brilliance of the music to come, though its halting, detached violin notes may be heard as a version in slow-motion of the Allegro vivace’s main theme. As so often in Beethoven, the most spellbinding moment occurs in the very long and subdued preparation for the onset of the recapitulation. Here, the orchestra is reduced to the violins on their own, giving out the ‘rocking’ figure from the movement’s main subject over and again, in overlapping phrases that leave the music hovering on the brink of a distant key. In a still more mysterious moment the first violins reiterate the rushing scale figure that had first appeared during the transition from the slow introduction to the Allegro vivace, while muffled drum-rolls add atmosphere to the proceedings. The inclusion of the timpani at this moment, with the music still in a remote key, is a highly original stroke. Until the twentieth century, when a mechanism for controlling the tension of the membrane by means of a pedal was introduced, the use of timpani was largely limited to sections of the music set in, or near, the home key. Beethoven, however, overcomes this limitation by treating the fundamental note B flat—the note to which one of his two timpani has been tuned from the outset—as its enharmonic aural equivalent, A sharp. The passage in question is one whose tonality is veiled and ambiguous, and the mysterious timpani rolls find the music poised on the brink of the key of B major. Following this moment, there is a luminous sea-change back into the home key, and a B flat timpani roll underpins the whole of the long crescendo that catapults the start of the recapitulation.
The slow movement is based on one of Beethoven’s favourite types of juxtaposition: a broad, sustained melody unfolding over an accompaniment in a sharply defined, military-style rhythm. The rhythm ceases for the main theme’s luxuriant continuation, with sonorous arpeggios on the strings, as well as for a deeply expressive clarinet melody delicately accompanied by both arco and pizzicato strings; but it returns in the closing bars, where the spotlight again falls on the timpani, which give the rhythm out on their own.
As Beethoven’s symphonic designs grew broader, he clearly felt the need to expand the scope of the scherzo to match that of the surrounding movements. His solution was transform what had traditionally been a tripartite form into a five-part design in which the trio was played twice, between three appearances of the scherzo. In the fourth symphony the design is actually abridged, with the second appearance of the slower trio followed only by a portion of the scherzo’s second half. Both the jagged arpeggio-like shape of the scherzo’s syncopated theme, and the notion of casting the trio as a slower piece predominantly scored for the winds, anticipate the character of the corresponding movement in the seventh symphony.
The bubbling finale is a piece imbued with the spirit of Haydn. A particularly felicitous touch is the ‘running’ bassoon solo which inaugurates the recapitulation, with the explosive orchestral chords of the movement’s opening bars replaced by gentle pizzicatos. The moment is brief, but the bassoon writing is notoriously tricky. In the closing bars Beethoven takes a further leaf out of Haydn’s book by allowing the music to degenerate into pure farce, with fragments of the main theme limply played at half speed, as if the piece were about to collapse altogether, before an abrupt gesture from the full orchestra brings the curtain down.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2007