Sunday, November 27, 2005

 

Beethoven: Symphony No.6

It appears to have been impulse, perhaps a conscious act, with Beethoven to alternate his moods from each Symphony to the next. For here again, as he turns from the Fifth to the Sixth Symphony, a complete change takes place, not only in his mood, but in his whole attitude. From a flight in lofty spiritual regions he returns to earth, and discourses of Nature herself, in the most intimate terms. If the inherent quality of the one in C minor may be defined as divine, that of the Pastoral is purely and whole-heartedly human.

These two so radically diverse Symphonies, it must be remembered, were written very nearly together (in 1807-08). Beethoven's mind had been occupied with thoughts of the C minor Symphony for a period of years; thematic fragments of it were jotted down in his notebook as early as 1800. But when he turned seriously to the composition of the Fifth, his attention seems to have been divided between it and the Sixth; and when these "twin" Symphonies were both first publicly performed, in December, 1808, at Vienna, the Pastoral occupied the first place and was called No. V, while the other was marked No. VI. This reverse order prevailed until as late as 1813, though Beethoven, upon their joint publication in 1809, insisted upon the order in which they stand today, and which therefore corroborates his intention: No. V, Op.67, and No. VI, the , Op.68.

The motto of this Sixth Symphony is Simplicity---in melody, harmony, modulation and structure; and this frank, artless quality contributes directly to the appropriate "rustic" atmosphere that pervades the pastoral composition. Beethoven states explicitly that he aims at "Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung, als Malerey"---"more an expression of the feelings, than painting;" and from this we infer he harbored no intention of producing a specimen of descriptive (program) music---an aim that was decidedly prevalent during those earlier days when the art of tone was still immature, and its true spiritual mission so imperfectly understood. The first Movement contains no evidences whatever of a "descriptive" tendency; the second Movement, however, does reflect (not depict) the repose and the murmuring voices of the forest, chiefly, as the title shows, of the brook; the bird-trio near the end of this slow Movement was admittedly and innocent pleasantry---though some birds do emit musical tones of fairly definite pitch and rhythm; further, music offered Beethoven, especially in the orchestral body, convenient approximate means of imitating the roll of thunder, the wailing of the wind and the tumult of a storm. These means Beethoven did not hesitate to employ, in accentuating the elements concomitant with his total pastoral project; but therewith all descriptive tendencies cease; the rest, by far the greater mass of its measures, is all strictly and purely emotional suggestion, sufficiently characteristic to justify the title---Pastoral Symphony.


Since Beethoven inserted a "Storm" between the Scherzo and the Finale, this Symphony has five Movements, to which he himself affixed these titles:

I. Allegro. "pleasant feelings awakened upon arriving in the country."

II. Andante. "Scene by the brook."

III. Allegro. "Jovial gathering of country-folk."

IV. Allegro. "Thunderstorm."

V. Allegretto. "Shepherd's Song. Happy and grateful feelings after the storm."

There is no Introduction; the first Movement (sonata-allegro design) opens at once with the principal Theme. The whole first Movement actually seems to exhale the fresh invigorating air of the countryside---meadows and forests, Nature's playground. Note the four different rhythmic figures, each one of which contributes to the moving scroll: (1) the order of eighths and sixteenths in the second measure; (2) the uniform eighths in the subordinate Theme (against heavy notes in the bass); (3) the lilt of the Codetta; and (4) this latter group reduced to uniform triplets. In the hands of this consummate master of subjective expression, these four rhythmic figures, so nearly alike and still so characteristically different, seem to mirror Nature's movements---ever changing yet ever the same---and are most vitally responsible for the indefinable "rural" atmosphere which the Movement creates and sustains.

Beethoven's estimate of the basic significance of Repetition, touched upon above, is nowhere more conspicuous than in this Symphony, and nowhere more obviously conditioned by the nature of his "pastoral" scheme. Compare, for one thing, measures sixteen to twenty-five of the first Movement; also the six successive presentations of the first phrase of the subordinate Theme; also the second and fourth Sections of the Development, based upon the first of the four rhythmic figures just cited. In the subordinate Theme, the melody in the bass-part appears to have the greater thematic weight. It is noteworthy that Beethoven throughout the entire Symphony uses no drums, excepting in the Thunderstorm. Also for the Storm, he adds to his score a piccolo, and two trombones, retaining these latter during the Finale.

The second Movement, "At the brook," is also cast in the sonata-allegro form, and is of unusual length. One is permitted to imagine, especially with the clue provided by the title, that one actually hears the murmur of the brook, the rustle of the forest, and---in the curious fragmentary form of melodies---the tuneful call of birds; and one may imagine that one senses the soothing magic and odors of the woods. Beethoven would not have objected to that; but he probably would have fallen into one of his famous tantrums if anybody had offered him a narrative, describing every measure of the piece. For Beethoven, as clearly stated, aimed only at subjective emotional expression. At the same time, he did insert one realistic scene, with explicit designation, in the bird-trio (nightingale, quail and cuckoo) near the end of the Movement; he may have meant it as a joke, but he thought so well of it that he repeated it, right away, literally.

The third Movement, a Scherzo, is frankly "descriptive"---but it must be borne in mind that it is an inherently musical subject, a rustic Dance; and the only touches of direct realism in it are Beethoven's deliciously comical allusions to the technical limitations of these amateur peasant-musicians. The form is larger than usual, comprising two different Trios in succession (in the same key), that are followed by an abbreviated da capo (Part I, only, of the principal Division), which is interrupted by the ominous rumbling of the impending Thunderstorm.

Having conceived the notion of including a thunderstorm in his symphonic scheme, Beethoven was compelled, for the time, to write purely realistic music. We are expected, here, to imagine the mutter and crash of thunder, the swishing of the rain, the howling of the wind, even quick lightening (in the piccolo), the mighty tumult of the elements---alternately advancing and receding---all unfolded in masterly succession and proportions, and nowhere for an instant violating the normal sense of tone-beauty. This Movement, naturally, has no specific structural design; it consists in a series of Sections (thirteen in number), many of which are recurrences of those that went before. There are a few brief "motives" but no "Themes," in the ordinary sense.

The storm gradually subsides; a shepherd's pipe is heard, like the Ranz des vaches of the Swiss Alps; this is answered by another, and then another call---which latter becomes the chief Theme of the hearty, good-natured, wholesome Finale. The form for this is the Third Rondo-form, rather long and drawn out, but of engaging and unalloyed beauty. Note there is a resemblance of the First subordinate Theme to the subordinate Theme in the first Movement.

Cheers,

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