I’m in the car. I’m in a traffic jam. I’m happy. I’m with Ludwig. Ludwig van Beethoven like you don’t know him. It’s raining. I have time. Time for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60, performed by the West-Eastern Diwan Orchestra. Listen to those first bars: The winds play that B pianissimo, the strings add a dissonant G flat while the winds hold that B. The orchestra plays a sound surface, aimless, hesitantly – and stops. And begins anew. Go – stop – go, precision coupled with tenderness… extraordinary! Gradually the first movement gains vigour and profusion without giving up a certain sovereignty. May this traffic jam last for just a little longer!
And the second movement. It starts with an oscillating figure played by the second violins. It is repeated by the whole orchestra, but the main theme is not being developed in a regular way, instead: go – stop – go. The third movement finally is written in the form of a German folk dance, a serenade-like trio evolves into a majestic theme. In the last movement Beethoven completely disregards any traditional structures. Sound becomes essential, short motives pop up, get interrupted by dissonant chords and vanish again.
The premiere goes unnoticed
The symphony is dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff, a friend of Beethoven’s patron, Count Karl von Lichnowsky. The composer had met Oppersdorff in September 1806 at Lichnowsky’s castle in Grätz, today known as Hradec na Moravici (Czech Republic). Oppersdorff was a music enthusiast and employed a large private orchestra, made up mainly of amateur musicians. With the dedication the nobleman would have an exclusive performance right for the symphony for some time, usually six months.
Beethoven finished the work quickly. It was performed for the first time in March 1807 at the Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna. A public performance followed in November of the same year. Oppersdorff however found out that Beethoven was a difficult man to work with. Actually, he had been promised Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, on which the composer was already working. Beethoven however needed money on short notice and had sold that one already to another nobleman. So Oppersdorff got Op. 60. After the premier in 1808. Trouble did not stop here. Oppersdorff had expressed his desire for two symphonies. And he paid for the two when he received the score for Op. 60. But Beethoven never delivered the second!
Schumann: A sleek Greek maiden
The premiere passed unnoticed, except for a very short mention in the “Allgemeine musikalischen Zeitung” published in Leipzig. The general press mentioned the symphony only in 1812 and the critic had the same difficulty that musicologists face today: to give this work its rightful place in Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre. Contemporaries called it romantic alluding to Beethoven’s secret love, the Countess Josephine von Deym. A poet characterized the composer in those years as “funny, joking, a times satirical” and many thought that the final movement of the symphony reflects this mood. Robert Schumann compared Op. 60 to a “sleek Greek maiden, squeezed in between two giants”, the “Eroica” and “the Fifth”.
Beethoven as you don’t know him.
© Charles Thibo