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Beethoven and his Fourth Symphony

Beethoven 2020: The Next Generation 2

On Friday 25 June Royal Northern Sinfonia will close our season of New Beginnings with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 conducted by Principal Conductor Designate, Dinis Sousa. Continuing our exploration of the music performed this season, we dug a little deeper into Beethoven’s life and this wonderful piece.

Why not have a read and get to know the man and his music a little better?

The Man

Ludwig van Beethoven the third (seriously) was born in 1770 and died in 1827. His grandad was also called Ludwig van Beethoven and so was his older brother, but he didn’t survive childhood. Grandad Ludwig was a musician and so was his father, Johann, who was a singer and violinist.

Health woes
It’s well known that Beethoven went deaf, which had some impact on his temperament and caused social isolation. But this wasn’t his only health issue. Throughout his life he suffered liver cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, and colitis.

Unlucky in love
Beethoven didn’t have much luck in love. He proposed to three women and was turned down every time. One of them even told him he was ugly. Harsh. His ‘Moonlight’ piano sonata is also a symbol of unrequited love; dedicated to Julie Guicciardi whom he loved but could not marry because he was a lowly composer and she a countess.


The Curse of the Ninth
Beethoven wrote nine symphonies in his lifetime. Since then, a bunch of other composers followed in his wake and composed nine too – no more and no less. These included Schubert, Mahler, Dvořák, and Bruckner. The pattern has led to the phenomenon known as ‘the curse of the ninth’. If you make it to nine symphonies as a composer now, it’s likely to be your last…

Early or late?
No, nothing to do with his time keeping. Beethoven’s musical output is generally categorised by academics into three periods.

  • The ‘early period’ lasted until 1802 and he wrote in the classical style. Basically, like Mozart and Haydn.
  • The ‘middle period’ was quite short – from 1802-1812 – but here he started to explore, and his deafness developed.
  • The ‘late period’ was from 1812 until his death, and this is when he became even more innovative.

It’s not all doom and gloom
There are some more lighthearted facts about Beethoven’s life too. Here are our favourites:

  • Mozart once said of him: “Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.”
  • He caused a stampede of oxen not long before he died, by walking through a field waving his arms wildly as he composed a piece in his head. To clarify, the stampede did not kill him.

Check out Classic FM’s Fast and Friendly Guide to Beethoven:

The Music

Beethoven wrote Symphony No.4 in 1806, during that exploratory ‘middle period’ and so we see (and hear!) a breakdown from some of the traditionally established structures – but not quite to the extent of late Beethoven.

He was offered a hefty sum to write the symphony for Count Franz von Oppersdorff. Some writers think he had actually been working on some ideas that would become the Fifth Symphony, but perhaps knowing the Count preferred the earlier classical style, he offered this instead.

So, about the music. The piece is known for being ‘sunny’ which means it has sometimes been overlooked compared to the heavier works it was surrounded by (the ‘Eroica’ and the infamous Fifth) but we think that does it a disservice. Let us know if you agree when you’ve heard it.

Some key musical points:

  • It opens with a slow introduction. We have some drama pretty quickly though as the quiet intro is replaced by repeated (really loud) chords and a cheerful first movement. Think of it as hushed anticipation before a sudden arrival.
  • The third movement is titled Menuetto in most scores, but it wasn’t originally. Beethoven simply called it Allegro vivace (Very fast) and his tempo marking was simply far too fast to be a minuet.
  • Beethoven described his playful fourth movement as ‘unbuttoned’…

And it’s reception? As usual for Beethoven, opinion has been long divided.

Leonard Bernstein called that slow introduction “mysterious”, “tip-toeing” and “reluctant to settle down”. Nice. Whereas the less subtle Weber said it was “full of short, disjointed, unconnected ideas.” Ouch. It’s worth noting though that Bernstein was writing in the 20th century whereas Weber was a contemporary of Beethoven. Opinions change over time, clearly.

Berlioz loved it, claiming the work was angelic. Others including Mendelssohn praised its originality. Some thought it was weaker. Schumann apparently called it ‘a slender Green maiden between two Norse giants.’ The public at the time were inclined to agree with Schumann and it was played far less often than his other pieces.

We love it, and think it deserves to be recognised as equal to the ‘Eroica’ and the Fifth. But take a listen and let us know what you decide.