Spring Symphonies: 58 Beethoven Symphony No 6 "Pastoral"

It is hard to find new ways to write about Beethoven's works: it's not that they defy description -  quite the opposite, they seem to invite many interpretations musical, historical, cultural, psychological descriptions.  Pushing boundaries seem to come naturally to him and so everything seems one way or another to be on the edge of some style or movement but pointing towards a new style or movement.

The Pastoral movement, a philosophy which was taken up by various artists from Claude Lorrain to Joseph Haydn - was all the rage and it was not just Beethoven who had wrestled it to the muddy ground to bring God, Nature and man back into alignment.  Haydn's Creation is another fine example.  And scenes from Nature permeated works from the century before Beethoven in works familiar to us from Vivaldi, Couperin and Rameau to name three.  Beethoven offers a countryside well described - a mood piece, and he also gives us a narrative and drama in the second half.  There's a good deal to enjoy here even for modern city dwellers who need that injection of Pastoral into their lives too.  The picturesque and story (explicit and just about the best set of movement titles you'll get in a symphony).  We can relax and wander and wonder.  And later be thrilled by and a journey towards a giant hymn which reaffirms our thanks for all the bounty and the guiding hand who saves the flock (on this occasion at least).

It is through a curious work too in that reaches forward magically to much later preoccupations.  I'm thinking of John Cage's entreaty that we will find music in the sounds around us I can't help finding Beethoven's Sixth as a fine example with the pattern of the sheets of driving rain and the bird song.  This latter may be more crude wrought when compared to Messiaen, but the context is more subtle for my money than any work until Messiaen's Des canyon aux l'étoiles.  He set a more immediate example and a high bar in this tone poem to Liszt and Berlioz amongst others, but Beethoven's effort was not bettered by Mahler (where he tried to do such things) or much mimicked without the recourse to a human voice.  Successors of note would include Shostakovich's Symphony No 11, Sibelius' Tapiola and Debussy's La Mer. A century plus of endeavour and not many composer's have hit the spot in the way that Beethoven did.

The oddity of Beethoven's life as a jobbing, struggling composer means that first performance in 1808 don't mean much.  The concert at which Beethoven chose to premiere this work also had premieres of the Fifth symphony and the Fourth piano concerto - three revolutionary works in one sitting - a very cold and poorly rehearsed sitting at that. That he made a buck at these affairs is one thing, that the picky Viennese cognoscenti and the music critics of the time made something of these works played in such circumstances is perhaps more of a marvel.  But how it has lasted and will continue to endure. It has survived the HIP movements austerity, the great 20th orchestra's showcasing, it has survived cartoon-ification and the sound bite culture of commercials.  But what does it hold for us now?

The first movement is deft and light and mobile, a charismatic couple of subjects do their thing in sonata format and everyone feels like a proper symphony has begun.  Listen attentively and you will be transported: it has that feeling of motion.  It is designed to be relaxing and one - in the parlance of today - might say we get into a more mindful state. One gets the feeling of not just arrival (static) but of "arriving" with all the notions of getting your bearings, breathing deep on the fresh air and stimulus of new sights and sounds. Beethoven has a surprise here (though I wonder how many notice): the opening movement is all in the same key.  The opposition of keys doesn't fit well with the first day of the holiday and so he moves in a uniform world of F major to conjuror the spirit of the countryside.  It is perhaps a bit tame for those of us who grew up in the wilderness but it is hard to argue with it's not engaging and charming.

The languorous holiday spirit of a hot day by a stream is wonderfully realised in the second movement which has like the first a natural flow of both repetition and development which defies the stampy, loud and abrupt image of the composer in his numerically preceding symphony.  It cycles gentle through the scene - by a brook - and ends with some bird calls.  These two movements - if the symphony had no name and had been left unaccompanied might have been seen as ballet scores or some incidental music.  Bird calls aside there's nothing to link to the pastoral, the countryside and certainly nothing which links to the drama ahead.  The serenity is maintained in the relatively mellow drop to B flat major here.

The next three movements were and still are archetypes: a dance, a storm and a hymn.  That they are continuous is a move to something more coherent and larger scale.  Only the last movement would be out of reach of Mozart but not Haydn: the City boy's sentiment didn't stretch that far.  Beethoven takes on the Pastoralism of Haydn's Creation (1798) and concentrates the forms, boosts the momentum and smashes through our notions of what a symphony can be…again.

The variety of expression in second half is incredible and throughout the pacing is impeccable.  The third movement is the rustic equivalent of it's stately sisters in the 5th and 7th.  Where they have gravitas, the 6th dances with humour, quick feet and warming humanity.  In that Promethean way of his, Beethoven takes his material in a superficially repetitive way but beneath imposes a dramatic will which I think is over looked too rarely. This music started as a blank page.  It sounds natural but it builds in momentum and range and humour - like all the best parties.  This is Merrymaking not courtly prowess and everything about it has the kind of meticulous ear.  But when the F minor storm bursts upon us and breaks up the party it does so with terrifying speed.  The big symphony orchestras make hay here.  The thunder crashes and the lightening singes our eyebrows.  Richard Strauss couldn't really better Beethoven's orchestration a century later.  The sheets of rain (what an effect) recede and we are left reeling as the thunder becomes more distant (what another effect).

The transition on flute, then oboe  then horn is simply divine.  So sweet that one can well believe the fervent Beethoven is as relieved for the shepherds and their flock as they are.  The rest is just glorious, uplifting and back to the home key.  It is built on simple foundations but I think the orchestration and harmony is like the end of Mussorgsky's Pictures or Sibelius Fifth, mind blowing. We seem to climb to heights of awareness: more grateful for peace having endured chaos. 

David Wyn Jones' excellent Cambridge Guide takes us through the ins and outs - it’s a great book.  For me his most significant and thought provoking addition to our understanding of why this symphony works as an enduring masterpiece is the observation from Beethoven's later notebook "Tranquillity and freedom are the greatest treasures".  Two great themes of Beethoven's age.

Karajan in 1953 produced a reading with the finest wind section of it's time and probably since.


And he's JEG for the authenticists



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