Inclyti sed victi

He loved to be alone with Nature, to make her his only confidante. When his brain was reeling with confused ideas, Nature at all times comforted him.

Countess Theresa of Brunswick

How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do. … In the country every tree seems to speak to me, saying, ‘Holy! Holy!’ In the woods there is enchantment which expresses all things!

Ludwig van Beethoven

No work of Beethoven’s is so misunderstood as his serene sixth symphony. Dismissed at the time and critiqued in the present as Beethoven’s attempt to paint a landscape in sound, nothing could be further from the truth. Composed contemporaneously with the bomastic Fifth Symphony, nothing about the Sixth makes sense. If Beethoven’s torment was reflected in bombastic and thrusting score of the Fifth, how can we make sense of this gentler, kinder Beethoven?

Perhaps we should not try and find Beethoven’s soul lurking in his music. Beethoven’s music, and the secret to its enduring popularity, is that he perfectly captures OUR emotions in sound. In the many Conversations an audience member can have with a composer, none is stronger, or clearer, than the emotional bond between Beethoven, through his music, and us. In the Fifth, Beethoven connects to our need to be free, feeding our sense of victory as the C Minor of totalitariansim is defeated by the C Major of liberty. In the Sixth, he connects to our need for peace and harmony–bringing us to the countryside where Beethoven felt those emotions most keenly. He’s not painting a landscape. No, in his brilliant Sixth Symphony, Beethoven maps out the emotions of the human soul as it interacts with the natural world.

Pastoral Symphony: no picture but something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused in men by the pleasure of the country, in which some feelings of country-life are set forth.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was not the first composer to be inspired by nature. His teacher Haydn had written symphonies called Morning, Noon, and Night, not to mention his more recent and successful Seasons oratorio. And Vivaldi, of course, had written The Four Seasons a century before. But the most direct precedent appears to be a little known symphony by Justin Heinrich Knecht, Le Portrait musical de la Nature (Pastoralsymphonie).  Although there is no direct evidence that Beethoven knew this work, he was aware of Knecht generally and the similarities of the works is telling. Both are entitled “Pastoral”. Both consist of, unusually for the period, five movements. And both introduce each movement, not with a description of the tempo, but rather with a description of the subject. Knecht’s symphony tells the story of a idyll, interrupted by a storm, after which nature gives gratitude to the Creator. Beethoven’s would be decidedly more introspective, although the idea of using a storm to introduce drama into the symphony was retained.

To the music. Like he did in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven resorts to simplicity, a limited harmonic vocabulary, and complex rhythms to create his sonic landscape. Repitition and lack of variation–so common in the early history of Western music–comes back here to express the constancy of nature, and of our emotional response to it. Gone are the secondary dominants, diminished sevenths, augmented sixths, and other chords that Mozart and other Classacists used to create color and harmonic texture to their compositions. But despite the superficial simplicity of the composition, more is going on beneath the surface.

The first movement (“The awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country”) opens in F Major, which will dominate the score to a greater extent than any key had in any symphony composed to date. There is a reason for this: F Major was long associated with the natural world. Most famously, Bach had composed a Pastorale in F Major for organ, a work that Beethoven may have known. Outside of brief and expected detours to C Major (the dominant key) and B-Flat Major (the subdominant key), the entire exposition (as we are in sonata form) is written in F Major.

The opening, much like the Fifth Symphony opens with a series of motives that, when strung together, create an elongated theme. These motives are as brief as the four note motifs of the Violin Concerto or the fate chords of the Fifth, but here Beethoven is playing with three discrete motivic elements. Here they are:

Nearly every note of the first movement will use at least part of these motivic elements–at one point at the start, Beethoven repeates motive b several times in immediate succession. Absent any harmonic movement in the score, Beethoven uses only dymamics to convey texture. This is simplistic composition, but the dynamics awaken something in us. I suggest that the emotion Beethoven is tugging at is innocent wonderment. When we arrive in the country from the grime of the city, we experience a childlike sense of wonderment. And that emotion must be scored simply, right? And that feeling builds as we experience more of the countryside, arriving at the second theme in C Major. This theme is, if anything, even more simplistic: G-C-B-C. The orchestration provides the texture here, but the overwhelming impact of the music is calmness and relief. Notably, Beethoven changes the music only by changing the rhythms. This conveys a sense of harmonic permanence, while providing the necessary momentum to carry the score forward. Just like nature, right?

This repetitiveness compounds in the development. Just listen for those motives, especially b, which will be repeated over and over again. Perhaps minimalists like Philip Glass learned a thing or two from Beethoven, who uses repetition and the lack of harmonic development to create a hypnotic sensualism in the music. And then the harmonic change comes, suddenly–followed by yet more repetition. More than a few have claimed this passage creates the emotions experienced when looking at a vista from a mountaintop, only to turn around and be astounded by an even better view. And yet it is all motive b. Over and over again. The senerity of the music is ever so briefly interrupted by a quick detour to F Minor, bringing just the faintest of hints of danger (and, oh, there will be danger ahead), before returning back to the sunshine of F Major and the recapitulation. In the coda of the first movement, Beethoven moves from F to the subdominant B-Flat, a IV-I progression that is, not coincidentally, the so-called “Amen” cadence. Not a particularly religious person, Beethoven is nonethless giving thanks for the beauty and peace of the countryside. And, perhaps prefiguring one of his greatest compositions yet to come, the emotional string Beethoven pulls on here is, quite clearly, overwhelming joy.

For those who dismiss the Sixth Symphony as kitsch, their arguments rest primarily on the second movment (“Scene by the brook”), in which muted second violins, violas, and two cellos play an ostinato line that gives the impression of a softly babbling brook, while woodwinds play something like birdsong above. This is not reading into the score–Beethoven labels a famous passage late in the movement to identify nightingales, quails and a cuckoo. Some have called this birdsong passage a joke, but I disagree. It is best understood as a cadenza, as if Beethoven has taken us inside the birds to experience their joy of nature as well. Regardless, my interest in this movement is in its meter, or, to be precise, its apparent lack thereof. Again, Beethoven uses rhytmic, rather than harmonic motion, to propel the music forward. But the rhythm becomes so repetitive that all sense of time starts to become lost in what is an overwhelming sense of stillness. Wagner, among others, took great note of this bit of compositional magic when he composed his greatest opera, Parisfal, in which time seems to disappear for the entire first act. Incidentally, these are the moments by which a performance of the Pastoral Symphony or Parsifal should be judged. Do the musicians make time disappear into an ethereal stillness, or is it just plain monotonous. If the latter, don’t blame Beethoven or Wagner–it’s the guy waving the stick in front of the orchestra who is at fault. One final note about this movement. Just before the recapitulation, and just as he did in the first movement, Beethoven switches to a minor key. In the first movement, it was a more gentle transition from F Major to it parallel F Minor. Here, however, it is B-Flat Major to B Minor, a much more stark change, and the brief darkness that ensues is that much greater. Clearly, there is something wrong. That brief premonition in the first movement is now even stronger and, for the first time in the symphony, Beethoven introduces drama and anticipation.

Which leads to . . . absolutley nothing. The third movement (“Merry gathering of the country folk”) finds Beethoven in a particularly playful mood. Perhaps, as his student claimed, Beethoven is evoking his emotions (and, indeed our own emotions) associated with a favorite country pub (his, incidentally, was called The Three Ravens). It’s hard not to feel the building excitement, created by the quickly rising and falling arpeggios, which lead to that moment when you walk in the door and your senses immediately take in the familiar sounds, smells, and sights of your friends and neighbors eating, drinking and generally making merry. Beethoven moves into a peasant dance (whether this is a riff on one of his lost dances written for the band of The Three Ravens, we will never know). The dances meander, always joyful, seemingly without a care in the world. But just as the dance rises to a crecendo and an expected F Major cadence, the music breaks.

Suddenly, shockingly, we are thrust into F Minor and, without break (for the second time, Beethoven omits the traditional pause between symphonies) and with a profound nervousness from the lower strings, all hell breaks loose. That premonition Beethoven scores in the first two movements is realized. The fourth movement (“Storm, Tempest”) lets loose a fury unrivaled in all of music history. Much copied, but never bettered, this is among the most influential and best music Beethoven ever wrote.

I despair of being able to convey an idea of this prodigious piece. It has to be heard to understand how realistic and sublime imitative music can become in the hands of someone like Beethoven. Listen to the gusts of wind gorged with rain, the dull growl of the basses, the shrill hissing of piccolos announcing the fearful storm that is about the break out. The hurricane approaches and increases in intensity. A huge chromatic scale, starting in the upper instruments, plunges to the depths of the orchestra, picks up the basses on the way, drags them upwards, like a surging whirlwind that sweeps everything in its way. The trombones then burst out, the thunder of the timpani intensifies in violence; this is no longer rain and wind but a terrifying cataclysm, a universal deluge and the end of the world. In truth the piece induces dizziness, and there are many who on hearing this storm are not sure whether the emotion they experience is one of pleasure or of pain. 

Hector Berlioz

Beethoven is not simply orchestrating nature here, he is scoring our emotional response to a storm: fear, unknowing, lack of control. And the way he does this is particularly brilliant. After three movements of relative harmonic stasis, we suddenly hear all of them–the keys change frequently (often after only two movements), produing supremely dissonant chords. Fear–nerves combined with a jagged heartbeat–resound in the strings. Relief and anticipation come during breaks in the storm, but the storm returns with even more fury, bringing a sense of helplessness–best symbolized by a piercing cry from the piccolo. (Incidentally, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were the first to use a piccolo. I suspect that Beethoven used on here first and, then, realizing its potential, brought it back into the Fifth.). Disjointed rhythms. Dissonant chords. Frantic and frequent harmonic changes. Beethoven’s score shatters just like the world during the worst storms. And then, just like that, order is restored. Silence, punctuated by the last gasps of the storm, leads us out and back into the sunshine. The music shifts to C Major, the first hint that everthing is going to turn out fine, and then it stops, takes a breath, and moves on (again, without a break).

The final movement (“Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.”) finds us back in F Major and the peace of the opening two movements. This celebratory finale is a welcome respite from the agitation of the titantic fourth. Meter again disappears and we, and Beethoven, are again at peace with the world.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral”, Op. 68:

Far from being Beethoven-lite, as critics are oft to assert, this is Beethoven at his absolute best.

Hide your faces, poor great poets of antiquity, poor immortals. Your conventional language, so pure and harmonious, cannot compete with the art of sound. You are vanquished, no doubt with glory, but vanquished all the same! You have not experienced what nowadays we call melody, harmony, the combination of different timbres, instrumental colour, modulations, the skilful clashes of conflicting sounds which fight and then embrace, the sounds that surprise the ear, the strange tones which stir the innermost recesses of the soul. The stammering of the childish art which you referred to as music could not give you any idea of this. For cultured minds you alone were the great melodists, the masters of harmony, rhythm, and expression. But these words had a very different meaning in your vocabulary from what we give them now. The art of sound in its true meaning, independent of anything else, was only born yesterday. It has scarcely reached manhood, and is barely twenty years old. It is beautiful and all-powerful: it is the Pythian Apollo of modern times. We owe to it a world of emotion and feeling which was closed to you. Yes, great venerated poets, you are vanquished: Inclyti sed victi.

Hector Berlioz on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

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