I'd like to thank Dumbo for giving me the opportunity to be a guest blogger in the Thursday Classical Music Series. It's a great series, and I'm looking forward to covering Mahler's Fourth Symphony today. It's one of the most wonderful symphonies in the entire canon, with its last two movements being some of the most gorgeous music ever composed for orchestra. So let's get started, shall we?
[Panic-stricken conductor comes up to lone1c and whispers frantically in lone1c's ear.]
Wait. I'm supposed to cover Beethoven's Fourth? Really? Do I have to? You're sure you wouldn't rather want to hear about the Shostakovich Fourth, or Vaughan Williams's, or Brahms's, or Ives's Fourth instead?
Or Bruckner? Or Mendelssohn? How about Mendelssohn? Come on—everybody would rather hear about the Italian, right? Bah-dah-dah, bah-dah-dah, bah-DAAAH-ta-ta-ta!
[More frantic whispering ensues. lone1c deflates in defeat.]
No? Well, okay then. Beethoven's Fourth it is. Follow me under the flourish while I suffer my penance, will you please?
It's tough being the middle child. The older sibling gets lavished with attention, while the younger siblings get doted on with affection and often seem to have a license to break all the rules. The middle child, on the other hand, is often starved for love. Even when just as skilled or wonderful as their siblings, middle children just don't catch the same breaks. If you prefer a sports analogy: it's like being the best quarterback drafted in the late 1990's: no matter how good you are, you're just not going to look good sandwiched alongside Peyton Manning at one end and Tom Brady at the other. Nothing good can come of the comparison.
Beethoven's Fourth Symphony is the classic "middle child," stuck between the Eroica symphony—which was only the most mammoth symphony ever written at the time of its premiere—and the Fifth, which is only the most famous symphony ever written. For whatever reason, despite its many merits, it's languished in relative obscurity, and even now is the least often performed of the nine symphonies. (Thank heaven for Beethoven symphony cycles, which give it many of the performances it does get.)
Such is the dismal fate of the poor Fourth, that it even had the ignominy of getting "second billing" at its première: the star of that particular evening was another Fourth—the Fourth Piano Concerto—also making its debut that night. (And, if you're keeping score at home, the Fourth Piano Concerto was also the work in which Beethoven threw out the rulebook that Bach and Mozart laid down for the concerto, turning it into more of a work for soloist versus orchestra instead of soloist and orchestra.)
Now I'm not going to sit here and try to exhort you into believing that the Fourth is on the same exalted level of accomplishment as the Third, Fifth, Seventh, or Ninth; frankly, it really isn't as good as those other works, and I'm not that good of a snake-oil seller. The even-numbered Beethoven symphonies don't quite rise up to the exalted planes of the odd-numbered symphonies; few symphonies ever have. On the other hand, to say that they're bad would be to hold them to an impossibly high standard: they're as good as anything you'll find in the symphonic oeuvres of great composers like Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, or even Bruckner (and certainly a heck of a lot shorter than any of Bruckner's ridiculously over-the-top essays).
While I recognize that the Fourth isn't an absolute masterpiece, I will certainly confess that I hold a special fondness for it. It's Beethoven at his "sunniest"; it's his version of Mendelssohn's Italian symphony. The relatively untroubled mood of the Fourth perhaps represents the necessary counterbalance to the overt dramatics of the Fifth, which was written at the same time. (In fact, scholarly study of Beethoven's notebooks suggest that he may have started composing the Fifth before he began work on the Fourth!)
What is indisputable is that the Fourth is very much the wayward child in the set of nine siblings, and is an outlier in many ways, including even something as mundane (or as critically important) as its instrumentation. The Fourth uses the smallest orchestra of any of the symphonies. The difference on paper between the Fourth and the others, however, is relatively minor: no trombones, just a pair of French horns and trumpets, and a lone flute, with no piccolo. The aural effect, however, is enormous: without the shrill upper octaves of the extra flute and piccolo, or the blaring trombones, and with the trumpets kept largely in check, the "inner winds"—the oboes and horns, and here the clarinets and bassoons in particular—are allowed to emerge through the texture a little more readily.
A fourth and a seventh, perfect together?
(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
I promised I won't argue that the Fourth is good as the Seventh, which Dumbo has just finished reviewing at great length. (If you haven't read it yet, go check it out for yourself. I'll wait.) However, what I would like to argue is that the Fourth provides the template which Beethoven used for the Seventh. From a structural standpoint, there are just too many correspondences between the two symphonies. Both begin with slow introductions before leading to a dancelike first movement. Both feature stately slow movements, and scherzos with trios that just won't go away. And both finales are in the perpetuum mobile style, with short themes being passed all around the orchestra.
The obvious similarities between the two are made even more clear when the two
are played side-by-side (as they have been while I've written this piece). However, recordings of the Seventh are usually paired with the a recording of the Fifth—putting the two crowd favorites on a single CD. (The Gramophone and Penguin guides are filled with outstanding Fifth-Seventh pairs.) However, my favorite recording of the Beethoven symphonies, a slightly historically-informed set by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, pairs the Fourth and Seventh on the same disk—just about the only time I've ever seen this combination, but one that made obvious sense as soon as I heard it.
For this column, though, since the tendency is to favor embeddable links over tracks you'd have to get through iTunes or another service (such as your local classical music vendor—if you still have one), I've chosen to include links to a recent live performance by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I think it does a good job of balancing the "Classical" and "Romantic" aspects of the symphony, while also being in excellent sound. It also reveals something rather significant: even for one of the world's greatest orchestras, playing a Beethoven symphony is not just another day at the office. It's a struggle. Beethoven wrote for himself, to achieve the effects he wanted and to "tell the stories" he had in his head, seemingly often without real concern for how easy or fiendishly hard it is for musicians to carry out in actual practice!
A digression on some musical terms
Before we get to the business of breaking down the symphony,
we need to introduce some musical ideas that will describe what we're hearing. The one which you will be most familiar with is antiphony. It's more commonly referred to as "call and response," as you might hear in Gospel music, or your local Occupy (or other labor!) protest.
protesting in Beethoven's day.
Lead: "What do we want?"
Others: "A 6-4 chord!"
Lead: "When do we want it?"
The general idea is just as the name implies: a "call" is met with a "response." Musically, you'll hear this a lot in "echo" works, where the performing ensemble is divided into two groups and one group echoes the other's material. It might also appear in a work when one group of instruments play one theme, to be met with another group responding with either a repetition (or slight emendation) of that theme, or perhaps a contrasting theme.
What happens, however, when the material getting passed around the orchestra isn't nearly so long as an entire theme? What if it's just a fragment of a theme, or a motif, or even just a chord? Well, then it's not quite the same thing as antiphony. Luckily, there's a term for this, too: it's called hocketting. We'll end up hearing a lot of it as we go through the Fourth—a lot more than we'll hear it in almost any of the other symphonies.
The other term that we'll run into is syncopation. This is something you're probably familiar with, even if you haven't heard the formal term. Syncopation is the placing of musical stress on beats that don't normally get the stress. For instance, 3/4 time is usually "STRONG weak weak," with a stress only on the first beat. If we instead change the musical pattern to be "weak weak STRONG," then we've introduced syncopation.
I. Adagio; Allegro vivace
Just like all of Beethoven's other symphonies, the first movement is in the usual sonata-allegro (or more commonly sonata) form. It has all of the standard subparts: introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. However, like the seventh symphony, the proportions here are quite stretched out compared to the traditional sonata form movement.
The first "chord" we hear (1:09) really isn't a chord at all—just a B♭, played in several different octaves by just about every instrument in the orchestra, except for the oboes, trumpets, and timpani. It's a rather ominous and unpromising beginning, and the mood is certainly not helped by the strings (1:12-1:33), who apparently got up on the wrong side of the bed this symphony and decide to drag us immediately into B♭ minor, even though the key signature resolutely says we should be in B♭ major.
More tonality games ensue, as the first violins slowly creep their way up and down a tritone, while the second violins, violas, and the bassoon somehow stumble their way into landing on F major (1:44), and then repeat the whole exercise an octave lower. A buildup in the orchestra takes us to a sudden reprise of the opening salvo (2:12); apparently Beethoven liked this idea enough to repeat this whole sequence, except that instead of staying in B♭ minor, the strings hold their penultimate G♭ and refuse to resolve downward to F. The result is that we've now on a path that will take us eventually to B major (3:05). Beethoven still likes plodding upward and downward, but now we have all the strings
taking part in the pizzicato-arco (plucked-bowed) games. Angstier and angstier it gets, until all of a sudden (3:50), we get woken out of the stupor, the cobwebs clear out with two gigantic F major chords (4:00), and, at long last, we're off to the exposition (4:12)!
Now Beethoven starts to toy with us a little: where as we would normally expect a lyrical tune to emerge, instead, we get a "melody" of eighth notes interspersed with eighth rests! Just take a look at this:
What kind of "tune" is that, played out so short and staccato? And we have the entire orchestra throwing little ideas around—it's like none of the instruments really wants to have the melody. (Now that I think of it, an apt comparison would be like the 2012 GOP candidates tossing around the lead in the race.) So you have a whole lot of nothing flying around the orchestra at tremendous speed until we finally get something that sounds halfway lyrical. Could it be that we've found—gasp!—the second subject? Why, yes, it appears we have—at 5:07! So, while still nobody
wants to lead, they're at least taking a little more time, and giving us some snippets that you can hum along with at home.
Of course, Beethoven hadn't quite broken down the mold of the symphony completely at this point, so that means we have to have a first movement repeat, starting at 6:30. More hocketing and more hot potato action ensues as Beethoven toys with us a little bit longer. On the other hand, around 7:34, we do get to hear the adorable second subject group again, so it isn't a total loss.
More than halfway through the movement, we finally get something that resembles a development section, because it is a development section. The repeat sort of fizzles out on us, and we move into a weird little section that includes an unlikely duet between the flute and the bassoon, who have some fun with the first group tune shown above. The strings then want to have their turn, and then proceed to act like one giant stringed instrument, passing things up and down the various sections, with an assist from the timpani, until we build up to a climax like that of the start of the Allegro around 11:20. So it's off to the recapitulation, which is a little more somber
and bluer than the exposition.
Beethoven apparently gets a little tired, and decides to give us a brief coda around 13:08, with a flurry activity before winding down everybody to a loud, unison B♭in the entire orchestra.
The slow movement of the Fourth is obviously not the Adagietto of the Seventh. In part, this is because the emphases of the two symphonies, in spite of their formal similarities, is very different. The Seventh is, in many ways, all about the concept of the dance, and nowhere more so than in that mournful yet exhilirating, somber yet brilliant Adagietto.
The Adagio in the Fourth is the slow movement, or at least, it is on paper. It clearly is marked Adagio, but Beethoven creates the impression of the music moving very quickly. He achieves this through the "trick" of shortening the note values: using very short notes in a slow tempo can make it sound just as fast as an "Allegro" or "Presto" tempo marking! While a lot of the music in this movement is also based on the interplay of notes with rests, the primary emphasis in this movement is on rhythm.
The most memorable motif—the one that you'll end up remembering long after the rest of the symphony fades away into the night—is the "heartbeat" motif, consisting of a thirty-second note followed by a sixteenth note, with a thirty-second note of rest between "throbs." (These will also frequently, but not always, be played B♭-E♭, which are the dominant and tonic—the two tones toward which the music in this movement, written in E♭ major, will necessarily gravitate.)
A few other short motifs will be heard, including a syncopated pattern of a thirty-second note followed by two sixteenth notes; you can think of this one as a "palpitating heart beat." The other principal motif is an undulating wave like pattern that outlines the notes in a major triad.
Unlike the sonata form movement, I'm not really going to try to give you a play-by-play breakdown. This isn't really that kind of movement. This is one of those times where Beethoven transcends the material he's working with, and spins straw into gold. There really isn't a theme being developed; it's more like a tune you'd hum along to yourself as your walking down the street, played against a few different rhythms. Yet from this, Beethoven does make something rather magical, even if it is the heartbeat rhythms and the wave pattern you remember, rather than those gorgeous melodies. But don't just take my word for it—listen to the movement a time or two yourself, and see what sticks out most in your mind! (And while you're at it, make sure to listen for the downward scales, which recall the ones heard in the first movement.)
III. Allegro vivace
The Scherzo of the Fourth symphony is clearly a predecessor of that in the Seventh. They have essentially identical structures, even including repeats in the first statement of the Scherzo subject. He even uses more or less the same scoring in the trio sections: both feature the clarinets, bassoons, and horns, with an assist from the first violins; in the Fourth, Beethoven adds the oboes for an extra dash of color—although he invites the rest of the orchestra to join in for the trio's climax.
If the first movement was based on the concept of the interplay of sound with rest, and the second movement is a study of rhythm, the third is a study of scales, as most of the movement is spent with the various instruments in the orchestra scampering about while running up and down. These aren't your traditional major and minor scales, though: G♭-E♭-C-A-G♭-F-E♭-D♭ does not correspond to any of the standard scales or modes. So let's call it the "special scale," for lack of a better name. Beethoven works this special scale practically to the point of exhaustion: we hear it all over the course of the scherzo sections, upwards and downwards, in leaping intervals and unbroken sequences, and in part and in whole.
In contrast to this, the "trio" section (the part between the repeats of the Scherzo proper), are a lyrical island. Here melodies get to go up and down, sometimes even in the same phrase! Because of the unusual scoring, with the flute mostly absent, we hear the clarinets and bassoons to the fore, riding on waves of sound from the strings (and taking turns with the first violins, who normally hog all of the attention).
Typical of a Beethoven scherzo, we then return to the opening material, which is followed by a second repeat of the trio (although somewhat abbreviated). A third return of the Scherzo leads to a transition of what threatens to be the third time we hear the trio. However, the sudden movement to the ephemerally brief coda comes as a blessed relief to save us from tedium and pablum. Compared to the Seventh, Beethoven doesn't try to hide his intentions: the start of the theme is announced in the brass, rather than the winds, and at a much broader pace, making it clear that the home stretch is plainly in sight.
There is a flaw in the design, however, and it's a rather large one—the key of the movement is once more B♭ major, just like the first movement and the finale as well. So we have an oasis of E♭ major in the Adagio surrounded by lots and lots of B♭ major. So the ear does get a bit tired of hearing the same tonality across such a long amount of time (that's why Boléro is so annoying—it's fifteen minutes of C major and about eight bars of E major). The Seventh symphony resolves this by casting the Scherzo in F major, so that no two consecutive movements have the same tonality (A major—A minor—F major—A major). On the other hand, as much as I love the rest of the movements of the Seventh, I rather loathe the Scherzo with the fiery impassioned flame of about five hundred burning TARDISes (out of a possible 1000): it overstays its welcome to the point where when the Trio theme repeats for the third time, I'm tempted to stab the "fast forward" button to get to the next movement, ending be damned.
IV. Allegro ma non troppo
As Dumbo pointed out in discussing the Seventh, Beethoven's real innovation in the symphony was to make the emphasis of the symphony the finale. It took him a little while to achieve it—it wasn't clearly so until the Fifth Symphony. However, the finale of the Fourth borrows a page from Mozart's playbook, in this case the Jupiter symphony. Once again, this is not to try to equate the two. (No Mozart or Beethoven fan would ever forgive me for such a preposterous claim!) However, the finale of the Fourth is rather remarkable, as he takes the "generating" ideas from the previous three movements and combines them all into one whirlwind madcap dash that's quite entertaining. Although the conductor shouldn't get carried away, as Beethoven helpfully adds a ma non troppo (not too fast) to his Allegro. (All good things in moderation!)
Scurrying strings start off the movement, with a snippet of melody heard in the bassoon and clarinets (:29) before the strings present the main subject (:39), with woodwinds taking over at 0:49, before passing it right back to the strings (:55). hocketting at 1:05 and 1:20 from the first movement interrupts the leaping and skipping tune in the violins reminiscent of the scherzo. A climax at 1:41 leads to more scurrying in the strings and a return to the opening material (sort of). The oboe gets its turn in the midst of a flurry of strings (2:00-2:25) before the clarinet and bassoon duet returns.
A big wind-up in the strings appears to go nowhere (3:30), before leading to another wind-up, this time aided and abetted by the woodwinds. This leads to fortissimo hocketting at 4:08, before the bassoon does its best machine-gun impersonation at 4:25, with another return of the main idea at 4:30, before imitations in the winds and strings, and more hocketting ensues.
To get an idea of how hard everybody's working, just take a look at how full of notes the scores around 5:55, and how quickly the bassoon and clarinet are moving at 6:10, and everything else going on at the same time. (Again, also look at this is a preview exercise for the nasty little beastie of a finale in the Seventh.) One last moment of a sudden transition from loud to quiet at 6:25-6:30 leads to one last big wind-up in the orchestra, before the symphony comes to its resounding climax . . . well, not quite. There's one last little bit of call-and-response hocketting between the violins and bassoon, and then Beethoven calls it a day, ending on a triumphant B♭ major chord. An exhausted and relieved orchestra gets a well-deserved round of applause for the yeoman's work done in bringing this neglected but lovely symphony to life.
Now Finalé to the Coda
Thanks for making it this far. In spite of the somewhat snarky attitude, I actually really do like Beethoven's Fourth. It's maybe what Beethoven would have written more of had he had a different upbringing: Ludwig through the fun house mirror, perhaps. It may not be the Fifth or the Seventh, but it doesn't mean we should give up on it altogether. There are too many works, even by the great composers, that we are slowly allowing to fade away from the canon, just because it isn't "popular enough." That, to me, is a shame, when there is such wonderful music still to be discovered.
I hope you'll join zenbassoon next week for a trip through Beethoven's Eighth, before Dumbo returns with more Beethoven.