Romain Rolland wrote of the Fourth Symphony, written at a happy period in Beethoven's life, that it flowed "with one spirit, without any provisional sketches". God knows if that is in fact the case, quite simply there are no remaining traces of Beethoven's work on the symphony, but it is doubtless one of the composer's most joyful and light compositions. Between the Third and Fifth, hewn from stone and wrought of iron, embodying Beethoven's spirit, it draws with its sensation of peaceful, unfaltering happiness and fullness of life. Not by chance did Schumann compare the Fourth Symphony with a slender Hellenic beauty standing between two giants of the North.
But Beethoven would not have been Beethoven if the shadow of his deep contemplations had not fallen across the happiest pages. The unusually significant slow introduction to the Fourth Symphony immerses us in a mysterious atmosphere of expectation; not yet knowing what is born from the shadowy silence, we are filled with light presentiments. And they do not deceive us: several bright bursts of the orchestra, beaming with sunlight - and in the music a joyful gusto reigns. The inspired Adagio is a hymn to beauty and harmony in nature, an idyll that can only be compared with the closest pages of the Sixth Symphony, Pastorale. The "muscular" minuet lies yet farther from its Haydn and Mozart predecessors than in the First Symphony; this is, of course, Beethoven's scherzo dressed in the clothes of the previous century. And the impetuous, sparkling finale is full of boiling energy and strong conviction.
The first performance of the Fourth Symphony took place under the composer's baton in March 1807 in Vienna in the home of Beethoven's noble friend Prince Lobkowitz it met with a gracious rain of applause from the select public. There is much in the Fourth - first and foremost the slow introduction to the symphony, along with the romantic Adagio - that served as a prototype for the subsequent generation of composers. Mendelssohn, who considered the symphony a bible of musical romanticism, included it in the programme of his first appearance as a conductor at Leipzig's Gewandhaus.
"Among my best works it is with pride I can refer to my Symphony in A Major," Beethoven wrote. The immensely wide popularity of the symphony was born on the day of its premiere, with the composer conducting, on 8 December 1813 in Vienna. As a sign of special respect to Beethoven, renowned musicians were playing in the orchestra: the violinist Schuppanzigh, the cellist Romberg, double bass player Dragonetti; kettle drums player Hummel and the young Meyerbeer. Beethoven's contemporary, the composer Louis Spohr bore witness: "Beethoven's new works enjoyed terrific success, especially the Seventh Symphony. The wonderful second movement was repeated at the insistence of the audience..." Glinka called the symphony "unbelievably beautiful" after its first performance in St Petersburg in winter 1834-35. Of the first movement of the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote in delight: "It is impossible to convey in words how glorious this endless variety in single unison is." And speaking of the finale, he in essence expressed an opinion that the symphony as a whole creates: "You don't know what to be more surprised at: the richness of Beethoven's artistic imagination, or the perfection of form, his exceptional mastery in having all means of musical development at his fingertips and in the instrumentation, full, intense and rich."