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Beethoven: Symphony No. 6

What happiness Beethoven enjoyed during his mostly horrible life he discovered during his long daily walk and frequent holidays in the country. The “Pastoral” Symphony speaks of these rustic delights: the simple, Breughel-esque joys of the countryfolk; first the beauty and then the untamed fury of Nature.

Beethoven’s use of descriptive titles and an extra movement—the storm—that describes a manifestation of Nature are two novel strokes in their own way as epoch-making as the idea of the funeral cortège was in the “Eroica.” Not that other periods in the history of musical style are without water and weather music; on the contrary, there is plenty of it. It’s imply that the best orchestral music of Mozart and Haydn was for all intents and purposes utterly abstract, and Beethoven here introduces a new spectrum of possibilities for the pictorially minded. Nonetheless his effort at picture music was cautious: the manuscript materials remind us that his conception is “more an expression of feeling than a painting” and that “painting carried too far in instrumental music loses it’s effect.”

From the beginning, the Sixth is dominated by bright, airy keys and textures appropriate to its programmatic intent. The tunes are coupled in simple thirds and sixths, as folksong often is, and the predominance of drones and other village-band-like orchestrational ploys is meant to be suggestive of rusticity. In the “Scene by the Brook,” Beethoven uses the 12/8 meter long in vogue for pastoral imagery in a sonata movement that relies on gentle rolling figures and prominent trills to suggest the play of sun, breeze, and water. At the end, the calls of the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo are heard ( and are so identified in the score).

The third movement is a scherzo-and-trio, countrified to order. The merry horn-and-bassoon calls that end the first strain are adopted by the violins as accompaniment for a strongly syncopated and rather primitive tune stated first by the oboe. For a trio Beethoven suggests a contradance; the scherzo returns and picks up speed, only to be interrupted by the blowing up of a thunderstorm from the distance. It begins gently, then erupts into a full-scale, pelting tempest with lightning and thunder, and finally fades away as summer storms will do. And, as likewise it inevitably will do, the country life resumes again, here with a song of thanksgiving built from an open-intervalled melody some shepherd’s horn might manage and sounding very much like the Alpine cow-herders’ tunes, called ranz des vaches, popular with composers a generation later. It is a tune, moreover, whose structure encourages echo effects and allows for the swelling up of expansive, soulful accompanying figures.

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