Monday, July 29, 2013

Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies

Continuing my series of program notes:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 Pastoral
Symphony No.5

Beethoven himself premiered these two symphonies on the same evening in1808. Then the running order was as listed above. Six came first, followed by five, numbered the other way round (ie at that stage, the 'Pastoral' Symphony was numbered as no.5); Beethoven had worked on both almost simultaneously.
Beethoven also crammed other works into the same program – two choruses from his Mass in C, his Piano Concerto No.4, a scena for soprano (from 1796), and a new work for piano, chorus and orchestra, the Choral Fantasia. All up, the concert lasted four hours. What was he thinking?
In the Vienna of 1808, Beethoven was struggling. His benefit concert, or ‘Akademie’, at the Theater an der Wien on December 22nd, was his last chance to score a surplus for the year. Might as well impress the influential people in the audience – at least those not going to the Burgtheater, to the Society of Musicians’ Benefit concert; those not about to miss out on the premiere of two of the greatest works in the classical repertoire.

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 Pastoral
1. Awakening of happy feelings on arrival in the country (Allegro ma non troppo)
II. Scene by the brook (Andante molto mosso)
III. Peasants’ merrymaking (Allegro ) –
IV. Thunderstorm (Allegro) –
V. Shepherd’s song: Thanksgiving after the storm (Allegretto)

In character, Symphonies nos.5 and 6 are quite different. Whereas the Fifth is a determined struggle against fate emerging in victory, the Sixth expresses the feelings of pleasure Beethoven experienced in the countryside, even during thunderstorms which refresh the summer fields and give cause for thanksgiving. True, there is a similar creative process at work in both symphonies. Beethoven was clearly toying with ‘atomised’ transitions at this time. The Fifth’s passage from ominous Scherzo to jubilant finale is analogous to the Sixth’s transition from ‘peasants scurrying for cover’, so to speak, to cloudburst. But the Sixth’s earlier movements express a more easy-going side to Beethoven - Beethoven when breathing the country air.
The nickname ‘Pastoral’ first appeared on one of the violin parts used in rehearsal for the 1808 concert. But how specifically does the Sixth express any rural subject? We could see the Sixth as the beginning of the ‘tone poem’ genre that was to become so important to the later 19th century, though we must not press this claim. Beethoven himself said, ‘All painting in music is lost if it is pushed too far…’ But the Sixth reminds us that Beethoven came up with many of his ideas ‘en plein air’. ‘He was never found on the street,’ said violinist Ignaz von Seyfried, ‘without a small notebook in which he recorded his passing ideas.’
In June 1808, Beethoven moved out of his regular abode just inside Vienna’s city walls, and went again to the rural village of Heiligenstadt, for the summer. At No.8 Grinzingerweg he continued working on the Sixth. His neighbours were the Grillparzers. Their son, the poet Franz, remembered seeing Beethoven entranced by a peasant girl, Liese, who used to pitch hay from the back of a cart while Beethoven walked by the fields. (Beethoven helped Liese’s father get out of jail for drunkenness, but almost ended up in jail himself for the way he addressed the village council.)
The first movement of the Sixth is not so much a portrayal of country life as, in Beethoven’s own subtitle, ‘an awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country’. The classical era’s standard sonata form structure, which had become a model of purposeful working out of ideas, here relaxes into a deep-breathed traversal of musical landscape. We can hear Beethoven’s basking in sheer delight in the calm negotiation of key changes through easeful repetitions - long before Minimalism had shown how to take the driven-ness out of classical music.
The ‘Scene by the brook’ is a bucolic andante which ends with the literal imitation of birds – nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet). Yet, even here the imitations arise from a musical consistency; an almost ecstatic treatment of winds throughout the first two movements. Once again, we ponder the extent to which life impinges on a composer’s output.
In 1823 Beethoven took his biographer Schindler to where Schindler says Beethoven had composed the Sixth. They walked in the direction of the Kahlenberg to the valley between Heiligenstadt and Nussdorf. In the woods, Beethoven lay down against an elm by a brook and said this was where he had composed the second movement. By now totally deaf, he asked Schindler if there were any yellow-hammers around. ‘The yellow-hammers up there, the quails, nightingales and cuckoos round about, composed with me,’ said Beethoven. Schindler asked why yellow-hammers had not been included in that famous second movement. They had. Beethoven sketched an arpeggio, a beautiful rising motif on the flute which colouristically marks a change of key as the theme continues in the strings.
The Sixth Symphony is suffused with local colour, according to Schindler. Beethoven had made it customary to cast the third movement of a symphony as a scherzo (out went the more poised minuet and trio of Mozart’s era!). But Schindler said this third movement’s evocation of country musicians was meant to be ‘realistic’. Have you ever noticed, Beethoven apparently asked, how village musicians might fall drunk asleep and then wake up and resume playing, often in the right spot and same key. He’d tried to mimic that.
But of course it wouldn’t be Beethoven if there wasn’t a ruffling of the surface. And in the Sixth Symphony, with Beethoven’s insertion of an extra movement, we get one of the most graphic depictions of storm in the history of music. This is Hollywood’s Beethoven, who shakes his fist at the heavens. But the music emerges from it into radiant thanksgiving.
‘Nature’ symphonies were not new in Beethoven’s day; but Beethoven’s expression of feelings is unique. How interesting from our vantage point in the 21st century, where we have seen the effects of human imposition on nature (and let’s note: Beethoven’s brook has now been cemented) that Beethoven, who gave greatest musical expression to willpower (as he struggled against the fate that made him deaf), should also be so receptive to nature.

Beethoven's brook today - straightened into a cement channel
The Sixth Symphony dubbed a ‘“Recollection of Country Life”, in F major (No.5)’ was advertised as the opener to Beethoven’s forthcoming concert in the Wiener Zeitung on 17 December. A ‘Grand Symphony in C minor’ was to begin the second half.

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.55
Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
Allegro -

If the Sixth reflects Beethoven’s habit of drafting outdoors, his Fifth proclaims mental habits of working out. We have here the most famous symphony of all. It must have had overwhelming effect on listeners accustomed to Haydn and Mozart.
The novelist E.T.A. Hoffmann writing his famous review in 1810 said this work revealed a new world before which the listener could only stand in awe and terror. Hector Berlioz’s teacher Lesueur said the work was wonderful but that such music ‘ought not to be written’.
In its titanic struggle, wrestling its way out of darkness into the blazing light of success, Beethoven’s Fifth has been a model for later symphonies such as Tchaikovskys Fifth and Mahlers First. The first movement’s clawing forward from the beginning clearing up details as problems come into focus (not as common a writing process as you’d think) is a particularly striking testament to the shaping power of the musical mind of this most architectural of composers.
Beethoven did most of his composing of the Fifth in 1807, though ideas can be dated back to his arrival in Vienna looking for fame and fortune. Somewhere in his 1792 sketchbooks was a theme foreshadowing the ‘spectral’ rising cello arpeggio that would begin this third movement. As he sketched out the Eroica Symphony (No.3) Beethoven continued working on ideas that would surface in both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Around 1804/5 he considered a turbulent minor key ending for what would become the Fifth, not the blazing quick-march we know today. But the idea of a funeral piece in C minor bursting into a triumphant C major conclusion was something he’d had in mind from his earliest extant composition – the Dressler Variations.
Beethoven’s Fifth bears the imprint of years of deep concentration and study, particularly in its first movement where Beethoven mines the expressive maximum from the tersest minimum statement (those famous four notes, which have come to be associated with victory or ‘fate’). Nearly all of his material – including long phrases – comes from extensions of those four notes. Even the singing second subject is underpinned by them. The motto provides perfect raw material for developmental turmoil. But, just as we arrive at recapitulation of the main material, there is an oboe cadenza. A diversion? Another transcendent incorporation of diverse elements, thought Hoffmann. Beethoven’s humanity and poetic depth, thought critic, A.B. Marx.
Beethoven plunges on until one single chord, born of the motif, is furiously repeated 20 times. And then again. One can almost hear the furious scratching of Beethoven’s pencil over the thickly-ruled manuscript paper (with its bottom staves left blank for the finale’s four extra instruments), as Beethoven keep ups with the flow of his thoughts and immediate rethinks. ‘Aus’ (out) he writes on bars that aren’t working, then writes on, then ‘aus’ again, occasionally ‘gut’, ‘meilleur’, ‘bleib’ (good, better, remains). After those reiterated notes, Beethoven plunges back into turbulence before finally reaching a re-emphasised statement of his opening motto. Then at his desk, Beethoven suddenly changes his mind about the ending to this movement. Twenty-two bars are struck out and Beethoven substitutes the present-day’s terse three-chords. If Classical music is, by definition, tight argument, then no other music clinches debate as decisively as this.
The second movement’s double variations are a relief after the drama of the first movement, though even here militant outbursts ruffle the surface. In the third movement Beethoven returns to innovation. Now he finds a place for 1792’s ‘spectral’ figure!
Scherzo means ‘joke’ but Beethoven plays with the listener’s expectations in a sinister, rather than playful manner. The lower strings’ scrubbing ‘false starts’ to the second part of the Trio had threatening overtones to early critics. We don’t get a straightforward repeat of the opening material. Instead the theme is virtually deconstructed, reduced to quiet timpani taps over which a fragment twirls upwards creating eerie discords.
It was this transition that Beethoven was still worrying over at a late stage of the symphony’s gestation. Now he crosses out the woodwinds so that only the violins wind sinuously up. Finally he writes in piccolo, trombones and contrabassoon on the bottom four staves of his manuscript paper. ‘[They] will make more noise than 6 timpani’ he wrote Count Oppersdorf on 27 March 1808. Then he launches into blazing C major as he has intended for many years. The presumptive dedicatee, Oppersdorf, might have been tantalised, but Beethoven, strapped for cash, flogged the symphony to his publishers on 18 September and offered Oppersdorf the dedication of Symphony No.4 instead.
With this last movement Beethoven altered the relative importance of symphonic movements. Previously musical weight had tended to reside in the first movement; here the last movement is the culmination of a psychological program. The motto idea returns, but reduced to an accompanying role, and Beethoven introduces several important new themes. Stravinsky thought Beethoven had loosened his control. Perhaps. He must indulge in near-‘overkill’ to ground the work in its home key of C at the end.
Richard Strauss, perhaps the greatest composer of tone poems, once told the conductor Otto Klemperer that he couldn’t conduct the second movement of the Fifth without imagining a scenario: the love of a man and his wife and then along come trumpets and drums and he must go off to war. Klemperer was appalled. Although Beethoven stood on the cusp of Romanticism, he was never as programmatic as that. Yet, he stretched the expressive capabilities of music as far as any ‘Romantic’ was to do.
And in another respect he presaged the Romantics. No liveried servant of aristocratics, he was his own agent. Beethoven was so glad to finally get an Akademie for himself that night. He had been angling for one for months. So how did he go? On 18 January 1809, at least Prince Esterhazy directed his pay office to transfer to Beethoven the sum of 100 gulden in support of his ‘musical Akademie’.

Gordon Kalton Williams ©2008

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013 
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013 
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013 

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