Beethoven's Works
Symphony No. 4: The Underappreciated Masterpiece

Symphony No. 4: The Underappreciated Masterpiece

Widely considered one of the most influential and iconic composers in the history of Western music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s prolific body of work includes nine symphonies that have left an indelible mark on classical music. While his third and fifth symphonies are often lauded as groundbreaking, Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major (Op. 60) frequently remains in their shadow. This article seeks to delve into this underappreciated masterpiece, shedding light on its unique qualities, contextual background, and contributions to Beethoven’s legacy. Join us as we explore the intricate details and remarkable phases of Symphony No. 4.


Born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven showed prodigious musical talent from a young age. His early influences included classical stalwarts like Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By his mid-twenties, Beethoven had moved to Vienna, which was then the hub of European classical music, to study with Haydn and establish himself as a virtuoso pianist and composer. His developmental journey was marked by personal struggles, particularly his progressive hearing loss, which began in his late twenties and early thirties.

Despite these challenges, Beethoven’s compositional output flourished. He was incredibly adventurous in his approach, melding structural elements from his classical predecessors with his innovative spirit. By the time he composed his fourth symphony in 1806, Beethoven had already begun to make waves with his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” which broke many conventional molds of the symphonic genre. Coming after the grandeur and revolutionary spirit of the “Eroica,” Symphony No. 4 was different in nature – lighter, more elusive, and filled with subtlety.

In this introduction, we aim to set the tone for a deep dive into the Symphony No. 4 – a piece often eclipsed by the monumental No. 5 and the groundbreaking No. 3. This symphony, however, offers a delightful and intricate listening experience, distinguished by its elegant structure and innovative elements that are quintessentially Beethoven.

The Composition of Symphony No. 4

Beethoven composed Symphony No. 4 during the summer and early autumn of 1806 while staying at the estate of Prince Lichnowsky, one of his most generous patrons. During this creative period, Beethoven enjoyed a surge of inspiration, resulting in several important works, including the “Razumovsky” string quartets (Op. 59) and a piano concerto. The Symphony No. 4, in particular, was composed swiftly, in stark contrast to the laborious process that characterized some of his earlier and later works.

The Fourth Symphony was first performed privately at the residence of another patron, Prince Lobkowitz, before its public premiere in Vienna in April 1807. Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s former teacher, is often credited with the formal and stylistic inspirations that influenced Symphony No. 4. However, the symphony’s graceful lightness imbued with occasional bursts of intensity reflects Beethoven’s unique voice and ability to innovate within the classical form.

The structure of Symphony No. 4 follows the traditional four-movement form. The first movement starts with a mysterious, slow introduction that transitions into an energetic Allegro vivace. The second movement, Adagio, is a serene and lyrical piece exhibiting Beethoven’s knack for melodic beauty. The third movement, Allegro vivace (the scherzo), and the final movement, Allegro ma non troppo, are playful yet meticulously crafted, showcasing Beethoven’s characteristic use of rhythm and harmony.

Musical Analysis

While Symphony No. 4 may lack the immediate emotional heft of the Third or Fifth Symphonies, its intricacies reveal themselves upon closer examination. The first movement begins with a hauntingly quiet, slow introduction, reminiscent of Haydn’s symphonic works but imbued with a deeper sense of foreboding and suspense. This then gives way to a bright and unstoppable Allegro Vivace, which dances gracefully yet powerfully, creating a stark contrast to the introductory theme.

The Adagio second movement stands as one of Beethoven’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted adagios. Its lyrical theme is presented with a heartfelt depth that seems to call for introspection and emotional resonance. Pitched in densely woven textural layers, the movement subtly explores the intricacies of harmony and thematic development.

The third movement scherzo, marked Allegro vivace, is spirited and humorously playful, a characteristic style often associated with Beethoven. It intermixes rhythmic dynamism with thematic development that keeps the listeners on their toes, blending classical elegance with Beethoven’s own spirited personality. The trio section continues with these lively themes before transitioning gracefully back to the scherzo.

The final movement, Allegro ma non troppo, showcases Beethoven’s rhythmic ingenuity and contrapuntal skills. It surges forward with relentless energy and a joyous, almost playful, character. The movement is a fitting conclusion to a symphony filled with contrasts and brilliantly executed compositions.

Historical Reception and Legacy

The initial reception of Symphony No. 4 was positive, though it did not achieve the same level of immediate fame or revolutionary acclaim as the “Eroica” and Fifth Symphony. Critics and audiences of the time appreciated the work’s elegance and complexity, often noting its classical roots and Beethoven’s ability to infuse traditional structures with his unmistakable signature. Over time, however, the symphony began to be overshadowed by the more dramatic pieces in Beethoven’s oeuvre.

The growing emphasis on Beethoven’s more monumental works in musical scholarship and public performances had an impact on the visibility of Symphony No. 4. Nevertheless, several prominent 19th and 20th-century conductors and musicians held the symphony in high regard. Hector Berlioz, a fervent admirer of Beethoven, famously described Symphony No. 4 as a work of “heavenly, incomprehensible gaiety.” Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann also acknowledged its unique charm and craftsmanship.

In contemporary times, Symphony No. 4 is appreciated as a technical and artistic marvel among Beethoven’s symphonies. It provides musicians and scholars with a rich text for analysis and performance, revealing the many layers of Beethoven’s creativity and emotional depth. Composer Aaron Copland once remarked that Symphony No. 4 is a “perfectly beautiful” work, reflecting a sentiment echoed by other modern musicians and critics.

Comparative Analysis with Other Symphonies

To appreciate Symphony No. 4 thoroughly, comparing it to Beethoven’s other symphonies is an enlightening exercise. Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” and Symphony No. 5 are often hailed for their revolutionary spirit and emotional intensity. These elements might initially seem less evident in the Fourth Symphony, but they are present in subtler forms, manifesting through intricate melodies and elegant structures.

Unlike the emotionally charged Fifth Symphony, No. 4 relies more on classical balance and lyrical expressiveness. It does not possess the overt heroism of the “Eroica” nor the fateful struggle encapsulated in No. 5’s motifs. However, it embodies a sunny disposition, perhaps reflecting a brief period of personal contentment for Beethoven amidst his struggles, which provides an insightful counterpoint to the themes of his more dramatic works.

In comparison to Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” which invokes nature and rural life, Symphony No. 4 is less programmatic and more abstract. It continues to explore the development of forms and harmonies, advancing ideas that Beethoven had been shaping since his Symphony No. 1, yet with a more refined and mature touch. Ultimately, Symphony No. 4 sits as a pivotal point in Beethoven’s journey, reflecting his balance of classical tradition and forward-thinking originality.

Why Symphony No. 4 Remains Underappreciated

Several factors contribute to the underappreciated status of Symphony No. 4. Firstly, its position between the “Eroica” and the Fifth Symphony, two monumental works that dramatically redefined the symphonic landscape, has led some to overlook it. The historical and cultural narrative of Beethoven often gravitates more towards his groundbreaking and tumultuous compositions rather than his more understated, albeit masterfully crafted, works.

Secondly, public performances and recordings have also played a role. Symphony No. 5’s iconic opening motif has permeated popular culture, making it one of the most frequently performed and recorded symphonies. In contrast, Symphony No. 4’s subtleties require a more nuanced approach to performance and a deeper engagement from the audience and musicians alike.

Lastly, the rise of programmatic music and romanticism during Beethoven’s time and thereafter may have overshadowed the more classical and formally elegant works like Symphony No. 4. As musical tastes and trends evolved, the appreciation of the structural ingenuity and lyrical beauty of pieces such as Symphony No. 4 needed to be consciously revived by musicians and scholars.


Symphony No. 4 is undoubtedly an essential part of Beethoven’s symphonic repertoire, embodying a blend of classical elegance and Beethovenian uniqueness. Its graceful structure, lyrical beauty, and rhythmic ingenuity deserve a place of higher recognition in the landscape of classical music. By paying closer attention to the subtleties and complexities of this symphony, one can gain a fuller appreciation of Beethoven’s genius and the depth of his creative output.

While Symphony No. 4 may continue to dwell in the shadows of the more dramatic Third and Fifth symphonies, it stands as a testament to Beethoven’s versatility and his ability to craft works of refined beauty. Modern performances and scholarly research continue to uncover the rich textures and meanings within this symphony, bringing it to the forefront for new generations to appreciate and study.

As we listen to Symphony No. 4, we are reminded of the vast landscape of Beethoven’s creativity—a landscape that is not solely defined by its most towering peaks but also by its serene valleys and flowing streams, all contributing to a comprehensive and enriching experience. To ©comprehend Beethoven wholly, one must embrace every part of his symphonic journey, Symphony No. 4 included.