Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Symphony Guide: Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"

This week's edition of the symphony guide over at the Guardian is on the Symphony No. 6 of Beethoven. As I have said before, Tom Service is doing us an excellent service with his year-long tour of the symphony. He has uncovered some pieces I was unfamiliar with (Myaskovsky?) and given us some charmingly overheated prose on a lot of the stalwarts of the repertoire. Today's essay is one of the latter. Possibly the most famous classical repertoire of all are the Beethoven symphonies and I suspect that Tom might be working up to end the whole series with the Ninth. For those of you keeping score at home, today's piece on the Sixth Symphony puts Beethoven solidly in second place after Mozart. Here are all the composers who have more than one symphony in the series so far:
Symphony Guide score by composer
Mozart: 38, 31, 29, 41
Beethoven: 5, 8, 6
Haydn: 6, 102, 
Sibelius 6, 7,
Bruckner 8, 6
Schubert, 8, 9
Mahler, 1, 6
I expect to see at least one more from Mozart, the Symphony No. 40, and, of course, the Symphony No. 9 from Beethoven and surely we will get a couple more from Haydn. I would expect to see one of Philip Glass' symphonies and at least one more by Shostakovich, so far represented only by his last, the Symphony No. 15. Surely Tom will cover at least the Symphonies Nos 5 and 7? But what about Allan Pettersson? Will we see one of his make it into the series? We have certainly seen far less formidable ones.

But on to today's essay. It is a pretty good one with a minimum of steamy cultural theory and a maximum of discussion of the music. One of the best essays in the series. Given the inherent limitations of mass-market journalism, Tom does as good a job as possible. Well, except in one respect. He presents a vision of music in which there is really no history. He says, for example:
I want to show how Beethoven creates a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony.
For Tom, every important symphonic work is "new", breaking the mold, going past the boundaries, baffling and astounding us. There are no predecessors. No symphonic work ever relates to other works in the genre. There are no influences. In his discussion of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony, he stresses how radically different it is from anyone, especially Beethoven. But there is so much in that symphony that reflects, in Schubert's own way, this symphony, Beethoven's Pastoral. Those lovely, long repeated motifs that Tom mentions echo again and again in the Schubert.

Another aspect that Tom does not discuss is that the Beethoven Pastoral is a particular kind of symphony, the sinfonia characteristica, of which there are many, many examples in the late 18th and early 19th century. I suppose that a journalist is the precise opposite of a historian. To a journalist everything is "news", even a two-hundred year old symphony. To a historian, everything is part of a web, a texture of events, all of which interrelate.

So no, in the Pastoral, Beethoven breaks no molds, just writes what is probably the finest sinfonia characteristica we could possibly have. Tom talks about the storm in the next-to-last movement as if it were the first time a composer ever tried to compose a storm. But not so. Haydn even wrote a cantata titled "The Storm" and there is some great storm music, even though it is titled "Le Cahos" ("Chaos") by Jean-Féry Rebel. Plus, several operas have storm effects. Here is Rebel's Chaos:

And of course, the last movement of Vivaldi's "Summer" concerto from The Four Seasons has a storm as well:

And finally, here is the complete Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven with its storm (which comes just before the final movement):


Shantanu said...

You know, the Pastoral is a piece which cannot be talked about almost - it's just Beethoven at the TOP of his game, the very top. In fact he's there in his 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th too!

Bryan Townsend said...

I tend to think that almost all music can be talked about, even though a lot of the talk might be mistaken! I did a whole post on the symphony in March last year: