Beethoven: 4 & Haydn: 102| Symphony Studies Nos. 14–15 of 118

by Glenn on September 25, 2015

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60
first performance: March 1807

Poor Beethoven’s Fourth. If it was a child it would get lost between the expansive Third and the exhilarating Fifth. It’s a great symphony that is kind of a wallflower in comparison. Nothing groundbreaking, just good. Michael Steinberg points out something I’d never thought of: that the even-numbered symphonies of Beethoven are hard to schedule for those who program orchestra concerts because they don’t generate the same interest (read income) as the odd-numbered ones do. Steinberg says the even-numbered symphonies of Beethoven are “generally more lyrical, less aggressive than their odd-numbered neighbors.” He quotes Robert Schumann who referred to Beethoven’s Fourth as “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.”

One feature of the Fourth is a slow movement that is really slow. Beethoven won’t write another movement in a symphony this slow until the Ninth.

John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, my go-to band for the Beethoven symphonies, play fabulously.

Steinberg tells how Franz Joseph Haydn was something of a mentor for Beethoven. Apparently actual lessons didn’t go that well, but Beethoven certainly learned much from Haydn’s scores. Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 was a model for Beethoven’s Fourth, so it seemed natural to take a break from Beethoven and listen to Papa Haydn’s inspirational work.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major, The Real Miracle, Hoboken I/102
first performance: 2 February 1795

This symphony has the title, “Miracle,” because at its London premiere people left their seats to crowd near the stage to get a glimpse of Haydn who was playing at the keyboard. A chandelier crashed on the now vacant chairs of the audience and the people who would have been sitting there reflected that it was a miracle. Apparently an earlier Haydn symphony was associated with this story, but this symphony is the real miracle symphony.

When you compare Haydn to Beethoven:

1. Beethoven is much more daring harmonically, although Haydn has his little surprises that must have been a lot of fun for his audience. We’re on a continuum, so there aren’t radical departures, but Haydn definitely sounds more tame, though not any less enjoyable. (Beethoven certainly sounded more radical in his own time than ours.)

2. You can hear how Beethoven is inheriting a form and altering it. He is slowing the slows and speeding the fasts (especially in the movement written in three) and playing with the rhythm.

3. Haydn’s music is so cheery. The last movement, especially, is so playful with overflowing good humor. There’s also a great surprise from the trumpets near the end of Haydn’s slow movement.

4. Beethoven’s final movement is upbeat, too, but you also hear how his end has some added weight. Haydn offers a chocolate truffle after dinner; Beethoven gives you a chocolate brownie with hot fudge and vanilla ice cream.

I listened to Sir Colin Davis conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. I don’t want to sound disparaging, but Davis is kind of a noisy conductor. The RCO, though, is a wow.