Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) in F major, Op. 68 (1808)
Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 – Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven not only loved nature but, as many of his friends attested, positively worshipped it. He was the first composer of whom it is reported that he liked to spend long and happy hours in the woods. He often retreated from Vienna to outlying areas such as Heiligenstadt, Döbling, or Gneixendorf, where he admired Nature with a capital N as a true spiritual child of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the German Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement. “His response to Nature was too deep and intense to be called anything less than mystical,” English author Basil Lam commented, “though one would not have dared to use the expression in his presence.”
Beethoven became fascinated with the musical sounds of nature years before the composition of the “Pastoral” Symphony: as early as 1803, he notated in one of his sketchbooks a musical rendition of the sound of water in a stream. Even earlier, he made a musical reference to nature in the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” the tragic document in which Beethoven first wrote about his encroaching deafness in 1802 (the Testament was addressed to Beethoven’s two brothers but never sent). “What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” It is difficult not to think of this mention of the shepherd when listening to the “Shepherd’s Song” in the finale of the Sixth Symphony. The love for the sounds of nature became inseparable from the pain of not being able to hear them.
Nature, then, acquired a transcendent meaning for Beethoven. More than a place replete with forests, brooks, birds and shepherds, Nature is a stage where an entire human drama unfolds: it is Beethoven’s personal drama that receives universal significance through the musical treatment. In this sense, the happiness, the storm, and the reconciliation of the elements must be understood on a symbolic level as well as in a literal sense. The Sixth Symphony, composed almost simultaneously with the Fifth, then, has more in common with that work than one might think. In its own way, the “Pastoral” also represents a triumph over Fate, but the same conflicts are played out in a different arena. One similarity between the two works is the linkage of the last movements. Just as the Fifth Symphony’s gloomy C-minor Allegro is connected to the finale without a pause, the last three movements of the “Pastoral,” the country dance, the storm, and the thanksgiving song, form an uninterrupted sequence.
Of course, the differences between the two symphonies are no less important than the similarities. The most striking of these is, perhaps, the reduced role of musical contrast in the “Pastoral.” Nowhere else does Beethoven spend so much time on one melody, a single harmonic turn or rhythmic figure. While the Fifth Symphony is characterized by an unrelenting impulse to move forward and a constant modification of its motifs, the Sixth favors identical repetitions and extensive pedals (long-held bass notes), in order to emphasize the basic subject matter, which is the peaceful contemplation of nature and people in it.
There is no doubt that Beethoven was inspired by sounds he had heard (when he could still hear) during his long walks in the countryside. The calls of the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo at the end of the second movement are the most obvious examples, but there are others. Beethoven’s secretary, the often unreliable Anton Schindler, reported the following anecdote which he could hardly have invented himself:
Beethoven asked me if I had not observed how village musicians often played in their sleep, occasionally letting their instruments fall and remaining entirely quiet, then awakening with a start, throwing in a few vigorous blows or strokes at a venture, but generally in the right key, and then falling asleep again; he had tried to copy these poor people in his “Pastoral” symphony.
Schindler then proceeded to point out those measures in the symphony’s third movement in which “the sleep-drunken second bassoon [repeats] a few tones, while contra-bass, violoncello, and viola keep quiet; on page 108 we see the viola wake up and apparently awaken the violoncello -- and the second horn also sounds three notes, but at once sinks into silence again.”
More often than not, however, the symphony expresses feelings, rather than depicting scenes or objects, as Beethoven himself had said. It expresses them with an amazing directness, apparent in the simplicity and warmth of the melodic ideas and the obvious pleasuer taken in orchestral color. We have seen that in the “Pastoral” Beethoven dwelt on individual melodies and chords for much longer than he did in other works; by contrast, he varied the orchestration by constantly shifting the same melodies and melodic fragments from instrument to instrument, from one register into another. Rarely does one section of the orchestra retain prominence for more than a few measures at a time; from the point of view of orchestration, this is definitely one of Beethoven’s most innovative scores. Another unprecedented idea is the introduction of two solo cellos with mutes, playing their own individual parts throughout the second movement. In the storm music of the fourth movement, there is a slight discrepancy between the cello and the double bass parts: the former have rapid scale passages that span five notes, while the latter play similar passages with only four notes. The beat being divided into five parts by the cellos and into four parts by the basses, the notes don’t exactly coincide, resulting in a continuous runble that undoubtedly resembles the sound of the thunder. It is at this point that the trumpets and the timpani are first heard in the symphony. Their sonorities add power to the storm music; the climax is marked by the first entrance of the trombones, who have also been silent until now. The trumpets and trombones are retained in the finale, enhancing the solemn mood of the “thanksgiving song.” But the timpani drops out and, as a result, the “Allegretto” sounds much more intimate and serene.
The “Pastoral” Symphony has often been cited as the starting point of 19th-century program music. There is an important difference, however. In the works of Berlioz, Liszt, and other Romantic composers, it is often the literary program that dictates musical structure. In Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the extra-musical ideas begin to impinge upon musical form, yet the Classical symphonic structure remains basically intact. Despite the extra movement between the scherzo and the finale and despite several idiosyncracies due to the program, classical sonata form, with its own, purely musical dramaturgy still holds sway. Beethoven may have been responsive to extra-musical inspirations, yet he was first and foremost a musician. And he was never a more “absolute” musician than he was in his programmatic Sixth Symphony.
Scheherazade, Op. 35 Symphonic Suite after The Thousand-and-One Nights (1888)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Tikhvin, Russia, 1844 – Lyubensk, nr. St. Petersburg, 1908)
The ancient tales of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Spirit in the Bottle, and so many others have delighted many generations of readers throughout the world. When the Arabic original was first translated into French in the 18th century, Western readers were introduced to the fascinating world—half-real and half-imaginary—of an Orient about which they could have very little first-hand information at the time.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, for one, did know Arabia from personal experience. As a young officer in the Russian Navy during the 1860s, he toured the Mediterranean region for two and a half years (as well as many other parts of the world).
About 25 years later, in 1888, he wrote Scheherazade, in which he strove to capture the general atmosphere of A Thousand-and-One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). The former seaman was naturally drawn to the stories involving Sindbad the sailor, and included several sea stories in his original outline to the work, as seen from the descriptive titles which he planned to provide for the individual movements:
The Sea and Sindbad’s Ship
The Story of the Kalandar Prince
The Young Prince and the Young Princess
Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior – Conclusion
But in the end, the composer decided to omit these titles from the printed score. He preferred to think of the work as “an orchestral suite in four movements, closely linked by the community of its themes and motifs, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character.” Rather than re-telling the stories in music, in other words, Rimsky wanted to evoke their flavor and to give musical form to a Westerner’s dream about the Orient.
The many stories of The Arabian Nights are framed by the main story about Sultan Shahriar and his wife Scheherazade. Here is how Rimsky-Korsakov summed it up in his preface to the score:
The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the falsehood and inconstancy of all women, had sworn an oath to put to death each of his wives after the first night. However, the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in the tales which she told during the 1001 nights. Driven by curiosity, the Sultan postponed her execution day to day and at last abandoned his sanguinary design.
Day by day, to put off her own execution, Scheherazade told miraculous stories to the Sultan. For her tales she borrowed verses from classic poets and words from ancient folksongs, creating an exciting combination of fairy-tale and adventure that the monarch found impossible to resist.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s “community of themes and motifs” means that, although the four movements are strongly contrasted in tempo and character, two main motifs are heard over and over again throughout the piece. They are subjected to many variations that change the rhythm and the orchestration but never the basic melody. The first of these two motifs is announced at the very beginning of the piece by the strings in unison, the second immediately afterwards by the solo violin (which will play a prominent role in all four movements). The themes represent the two protagonists, Sultan Shahriar and Scheherazade, respectively. Thus, throughout the episodes, we are constantly reminded of the basic setting, with Scheherazade speaking and Shahriar listening.
The brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s melodic imagination is matched by his mastery of orchestration. It wasn’t for nothing that his reputation rested in part on his superb handling of the symphony orchestra. (He even wrote a classic textbook on orchestration.) In addition to the prominent violin solo, he gave important solo turns to the cello, the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the bassoon, the trumpet, and the harp, carefully choosing the specific tone colors to achieve the intended effect. The various instruments blend in novel ways that influenced many composers of the subsequent generation, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous pupil, Igor Stravinsky.