Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 | Symphony Study No. 17 of 118

by Glenn on November 4, 2015

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68, Pastoral
fp: 22 December 1808

The Sixth Symphony is Beethoven’s popular even-numbered symphony. For reasons I don’t understand, I’ve avoided this one over the years. It’s a shame that I can’t say the last time I’ve heard this. I think I heard it live once. Perhaps it didn’t move me, then, but as I listen to it now I have no excuse not to turn to it again and again.

This is an idea symphony. Beethoven is messing not just with the form of the symphony but the possibility of what the symphony can do.

Beethoven includes five movements. Not totally radical, because Haydn didn’t always follow the practice of four movements, for example in his “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45, which I am saving for the last symphony to listen to in this learning project), which had a fifth movement included at the end to make a certain point to his employer and his Symphony No. 60, which has six movements. But it wasn’t typical for sure.

And then beyond the tempo/mood markings for each movement, “Allegro ma non troppo” (fast, but not overly so), for example, Beethoven includes some other annotations:

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside.
2. Scene by the brook.
3. Merry gathering of country folk.
4. Thunder. Storm.
5. Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.

This is something very different. Instead of indications of speed or style now we have new possibilities for extra-musical meaning.

And so begins a couple of strains that run through the history of music. One strain is music that exists for itself. It is what it is and we appreciate it but we don’t try to read into it any other meaning. This is pure music. The other strain is programmatic music, or music that paints a picture.

At some point there will be serious arguments about what music can and should do (Mahler, for example, had programme notes for his first symphony that he later withdrew), but with Beethoven he is simply doing this new thing. While Beethoven is certainly opening the door to something new, he hasn’t flung it wide open or anything. These are perhaps general expressions of feeling rather than specific meanings.

Some who follow in Beethoven’s path will get very specific with their meaning, Hector Berlioz is one with his Symphonie Fantastique, which has always creeped me out for some reason, but it makes Michael Steinberg’s book so I’ll be giving it a fresh listening. Maybe after Beethoven I can get that over with. And maybe I won’t feel like it’s something I have to get over with any longer. There’s that Marcel Proust quote about “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” There is real joy in listening and hearing with new ears.

What is masterful about  Beethoven’s Sixth is the fact that he is able to pull off both pure music and allusions. If we didn’t have the extra meaning to think about, we would still have some lovely tunes. But in and around the lovely tunes are bird calls and storms. I especially like the third movement with the rustic dance music. The opening movement is my favorite, though. Just pure delight.

I think it’s possible to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth and not hear it as tremendously revolutionary. Probably it sounds like “classical music” for many people. But one of the joys of learning is discovering and uncovering nuance and shades of meaning and richer definitions.

I don’t know why I haven’t listened to more Beethoven over the years. It’s remarkable. But you have to get past treating his music like it is all the same as other classical music. The best part of this journey through the evolution of the symphony has been to hear the way the music has evolved over the more than two centuries that the symphony has been an art form.

And I can’t recommend enough taking in the Beethoven symphonies one after the other in a short span of time. If it wasn’t obvious with Beethoven’s Fifth that the music is changing, here we are in the Sixth and there is no question that we have a new thing going.

So what can we say Beethoven has done that is so revolutionary:

1. He has broadened the harmonic range—how far you can take a symphony.

2. He has increased harmonic complexity—syncopations and abrupt changes.

3. He has brought the idea of transformation into the symphony—the idea that you can start one place and end of somewhere else.

4. And now we have this idea of extra musical meaning. Probably can’t state enough how significant this new idea is.

Something that Michael Steinberg points out in The Symphony is the way Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies compare and contrast with each other. They both have opening movements that stop and start over and over, but the Fifth has an edge to it while the Sixth is at peace with itself and the world. Steinberg writes,

“The Fifth begins as violently as possible, and there is nothing that even comes close to rivaling it until the Mahler Second more than eighty yers later. In the Pastoral, Beethoven’s aim is to begin as gently as possible.”

And the endings are very different, too. The Fifth ends with a giant exclamation point while the Sixth ends with a deep and satisfying sigh. Simply sublime.

I’m still enjoying the performances by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.