Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reading Beethoven's 6th

Further to Assignment 4 in our study of "How to Read a Symphony Like a Good Book," we come to yet another symphony with a nickname: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony in F, also known as the "Pastoral Symphony." It is well-known to millions of fans of the Disney animated film Fantasia, where it accompanies an episode featuring unicorns, satyrs, and the like. This is appropriate imagery for a work inspired by Beethoven's love of the countryside. The word "pastoral" suggests shepherds sitting on a grassy hillside, watching their sheep wandering up and down the valley, perhaps dancing while one of them plays a hand-carved flute, etc.

"Recollections of Country Life" was another title Beethoven gave the symphony at its 1808 premiere. Each of the five movements also has a title related to this theme: "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country" ... "Scene by the stream" ... "Happy gathering of country folk" ... "Storm & tempest" ... "Shepherd song: joyful and thankful feelings after the storm." These titles, apt to be printed in a concert programme, supply the listener with a sketchy storyline to think about during the music. It's a concept known as programme music. There are no lyrics, no precise dramatic outline; but, influenced by the suggestion of the written programme, our minds conjure images and events to go with the symphony's themes and musical events.

Here is Herbert von Karajan conducting this entire symphony with, probably, the Berlin Philharmonic.The opening sonata movement is marked Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast). Note the clever little imitation bird calls that decorate it. Can you imagine a more gracious, gentle, happy piece of music? What you may be too enchanted to notice is the groundbreaking techniques of "cellular" motivic development Beethoven used throughout this movement, endlessly repeating several short ideas in different combinations. The effect seems to parallel the organic growth and variety of nature itself.

Movement II, Andante molto mosso (a very brisk walking pace), is another sonata, this time in the key of B-flat. It depicts an idyllic walk along a bubbling stream. The effect of flowing water is achieved by two musicians playing muted cellos, while the rest of the cellists lay down a bass line of plucked strings. Listen for the tender bassoon solo at about 11:40 in the video above, introducing an open-hearted codetta theme. Also note the increasing use of the woodwinds to imitate birdcalls, culminating in a remarkable cadenza passage (video 19:40) in which flute, oboe, and clarinet soloists impersonate the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo.

Movement III, Allegro, is a Scherzo in F. It is an unusual structure for a Scherzo, however. First off, the Trio comes back for a second time. (Karajan & Co. omit the repeat.) Plus, both times, it is preempted by a faster passage in a contrasting meter, changing a dance of bucolic gentlefolk into a coarse peasant dance. On its last return, the Scherzo is interrupted by the approaching storm.

Movement IV follows without a break, with distant thunder growing into a tempest of seemingly unstoppable fury. Beethoven saved the piccolo, trombones, and timpani for this passage. The storm soon abates, flowing seamlessly into the finale with its chorale-like shepherds' song of joy and thanks. The movement is a "sonata rondo," such that the first theme serves both as a refrain (set off by contrasting episodes) and as the subject of a sonata (with the first episode ending on the dominant, the second modulating through several keys, and the third recapping the first episode in the tonic key of F). The movement climaxes in the ecstasy of its relatively long coda before ending peacefully except for, or perhaps in spite of, two loud final chords.

Next to Beethoven's Fifth, which was written at the same time and premiered at the same concert, the Sixth may seem pale and weak. It certainly did to that first audience in December 1808. But on its own terms, separated from the immediate presence of the Fifth Symphony, it is a lovely peace of music, filled with warmth, good humor, natural charm, and an undeniably peaceful outlook -- the fourth movement's thunderstorm notwithstanding. It's healthy, sunny, outdoorsy music that does the spirit good, and it shows a side of Beethoven's character without which he could not have lived to create so many emotionally turbulent masterpieces.

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