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About this Piece

For someone so often perceived as an embodiment of the revolutionary musician it is surprising how rarely Beethoven actually broke the rules. His true genius isn’t in rebelling against his predecessors Haydn and Mozart but rather in expanding their language to reach new, uncharted territories. It enabled him to take the revolutionary ideals he fervently believed in—freedom, individual agency—and reflect them in music without burning down the house.

His Fourth Symphony is a case in point. Nestled between two symphonies that are far more famous and dramatic, it can seem less audacious. But it is a prime example of how Beethoven uses existing concepts to express something entirely new.

From the start, Beethoven appears to follow Haydn’s model of opening a symphony with a slow, weighty introduction. But “introduction” is a misnomer here—this music doesn’t exactly set the stage for us. Quite the opposite, in fact, it is daringly abstract: just bare, falling intervals over a diaphanous drone. (You may hear Mahler’s First in it. Or Star Trek. Either way, you are absolutely correct!) We are being blindly led through dark, amorphous space with nothing to indicate the path forward. But just as we hit an impasse, with a sudden chord and a violin flourish—like a burst of sonic light—the music breaks free and sets the rest of the movement on course with irresistible energy. It’s an unforgettable moment, possibly inspired by Haydn’s “let there be light” from The Creation, but fundamentally different: for Beethoven, the triumph of order over chaos is not a religious sentiment but an idealistic, political one. And as if to reiterate that it’s never guaranteed, the music later slides again into that formless abyss, now placing the mysterious drone down in the darkest depths, threatening to devour all other notes. But as if struggling against its pull, the familiar flourishes in the strings that had heralded the moment of freedom build up again, toward an even brighter sonority than before. That’s the one element Beethoven keeps going back to more than anything else in the first movement, which he ends with a surge of optimism that is simply intoxicating, the glow of which prevails over the rest of the symphony.

Chamber versions of orchestral music used to be fairly common in the 19th century. But conveying a Beethoven symphony scored for dozens of instruments through the intimate, more conversational idiom of a piano trio is a bit like translating a truly great novel. To try and illuminate his explosive, timeless ideas through a whole new lens is nothing short of thrilling.

—Shai Wosner