Summer of 1806 in Silesia (modern-day Czech Republic)

March 1807 at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna

The Fourth Symphony is one of the least performed of Beethoven’s orchestral works, having largely been overshadowed by his other monumental symphonies. It is a fairly traditional symphony, and as such suffered the unfortunate timing of falling directly between two of Beethoven’s most expansive compositions: Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ and Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. In fact, ambivalence towards the work actually began near the end of Beethoven’s own lifetime, once the public had witnessed the grandeur and scope of the composer's final symphonies. Robert Schumann even once remarked that the piece was akin to a “Greek maiden between two Norse giants.”[1]

Although Beethoven released this B♭ Major symphony as his Fourth Symphony, it was not the true successor to Eroica. He had already begun sketching a C Minor symphony (which would become the infamous Fifth) when he turned his attention towards creating a lighter piece in the summer of 1806.[2] It had been two-and-a-half years since Beethoven had completed his last symphony, so it is likely that the C Minor sketches were set aside so that a smaller work could be completed sooner.[3]

Beethoven composed the Fourth while staying with Prince von Lichnowsky at his summer castle near Troppau.[4] During this stay, Beethoven made the acquaintance of Count Franz von Oppersdorff, who wasted little time in commissioning him for a work for Oppersdorff’s court orchestra in Oberglogau.[5] Beethoven initially planned to give his Fifth Symphony to Oppersdorff, but in a letter from November 1808 he informed the Count that the piece had already been sold.[6] Searching for a piece to fulfill this two-year old commission, Beethoven turned to his already completed Fourth Symphony. Unsurprisingly, Oppersdorff was not pleased with receiving a symphony that had been premiered over a year earlier, and did not commission Beethoven for any further works.[7]

[1] Julian Seaman, Great Orchestral Music (New York: Rinehar, 1950), 33.

[2] Corey Field, ed., The Musician’s Guide To Symphonic Music: Essays from the Eulenberg Scores (New York: Schott Music Corporation, 1997), 45.

[3] Field, 46.

[4] In modern-day Czech Republic.

[5] In modern-day Poland.

[6] Field, 46.

[7] John N. Burk, ed., Philip Hale’s Boston Symphony Programme Notes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1935), 20.