TBT^2: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

One of the many benefits of teaching music is (re)discovering beloved favorite works.  During last week’s round of distance learning, I had to pull out some of the classics.  If we’re going to sit on a Google Meet call, let’s listen to some music, not just talk about it.

I really love programmatic music—instrumental music that tells a story, often accompanied by program notes explaining (usually very briefly) what the listener is supposed to hear in the musical “story.”  Students often like to imagine their own stories when listening to instrumental music, which is great, but I find that programmatic works give students (and myself!) some guideposts to follow.

Fortunately, Ludwig von Beethoven provided some handy ones for us in his Sixth Symphony, quite possibly my favorite symphony, and certainly my favorite of Beethoven’s.  It’s the so-called “Pastoral” symphony, as it depicts a pleasant trip to the country (besides the roiling thunderstorm in the fourth movement).

It’s also unusual in two respects:  instead of the standard four movements of the classical symphony (a fast opening movement, a slow second movement, a dancelike third movement, and a fast fourth movement), Beethoven includes five; and the third, fourth, and fifth movements all flow seamlessly into one another, without the customary pause between each.

It is also long, especially by the standards of the classical symphony (the Romantics, however, would have easily matched Beethoven for runtime), clocking in at nearly forty-five minutes (the typical classical symphony averages around twenty-five-to-thirty minutes, but forty-five would have been the upper limit for the time).  But that length is in service to Beethoven’s vision, and he fully explores every theme in this symphony.

Here is a particularly excellent performance—the one I showed, in part, to my classes last week—by the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Bernard Haitnik:

With that, here is 4 February 2021’s “TBT: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony“:

I’ve been on a major classical and Romantic music kick lately, dedicating the last three Fridays specifically to the music of the Romantic Period (herehere, and here).

As such, I thought it would be apropos to look back at a piece I wrote last January about Beethoven and his masterful Sixth Symphony.  The occasion for that piece was the South Carolina Philharmonic‘s Sunday matinee performance of their popular Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert—back in The Before Times when we still had live music.  The program, as I wrote at the time, was “‘Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,’” featuring Beethy’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor and Symphony No. 6 in F Major.

The Sixth, often called the “Pastoral,” is one of my favorites.  I’m a sucker for programmatic music, and there are programmatic elements embedded in the titles of each of the symphony’s movements, but the music sounds like the countryside.

But I covered all of this a year ago, so why repeat myself (except that I’m doing that below… hmm…)?  Here is January 2020’s “Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony“:

It’s been an artistically fulfilling weekend.  First there was the play (I’m sure readers are tired of reading about it) in which I performed.  After three successful performances, my girlfriend and I took in the South Carolina Philharmonic‘s Sunday matinee performance of their popular Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert.  Classical music is even more enjoyable when you get to wear jeans.

The SC Philharmonic’s energetic conductor, Morihiko Nakahara (a show in himself), didn’t pull any punches with this year’s B&BJ program.  It was, essentially, “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,” as I remarked to my girlfriend.  Morihiko always tosses in one piece of weird modern classical music, but after enduring young composer Jessie Montgomery‘s 2016 tone poem “Records from a Vanishing City,” it was straight into the classics:  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the so-called Pastoral, rounded out the first half of the concert.  Then it was into the thundering “DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUH, DUHN DUHN DUHN DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH” of the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor after the break.

Everyone loves the Fifth Symphony, with its iconic opening theme (the first in symphonic music to make a rhythmic idea the theme, not a melodic one).  But for my money, the bucolic beauty of the Sixth takes the cake.

The Philharmonic performed it beautifully.  The glorious first movement, which Beethoven entitled “Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country,” brought tears of joy to my eyes.  That’s hard to achieve in instrumental music.  The symphony is a sort of musical counterpoint to the intensity of the Fifth, which broods through the minor mode before resolving to C major in a glorious finale.

The Sixth, on the other hand, is a largely untroubled trip through the countryside, which Beethoven apparently loved.  He wrote more in his sketchbooks about the Sixth Symphony than any other, as he attempted to (and succeeded in) conveying musically the feel of rurality.

The symphony is a celebration of country life, without being overly romantic (though it is Romantic, to an extent).  It rises above programmatic music, in which the composer says, “Here is what this music is supposed to be about”:  the music speaks for itself.  It has programmatic elements, of course:  the last three movements, which all blend into one another, depict a peasant dance, which is then broken up by a powerful thunderstorm, which is followed by a celebration once the tension of the storm is released.

I honestly can’t say much more about the music (partially because I’m running out of time to get this post done)—but the music speaks for itself.  Listen to the recording above, or seek one out yourself.  Better yet, try to hear it live.

Regardless, tune out everything else.  Turn down the lights, put on your headphones, and just drink in the music.  Beethoven may not be my personal favorite composer, but the Sixth Symphony is transcendent.

As I remarked to my girlfriend after the concert, “That’s what music sounded like when Western Civilization still believed in itself.”  Listen yourself—I think you’ll agree.

4 thoughts on “TBT^2: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

  1. This sounds like I’m being petulant, but I’m really not – it’s a serious question. These are all professional musicians, highly trained and experienced. They all read sheet music. Aside from getting them all to start at the same time, what is the purpose of the conductor? All the musical notations are in the music itself, which the trained muscians can read for themselves, why do they need a conductor?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a great question, Audre—not petulant at all!

      The composer serves a few important functions:
      – He controls the tempo, which is huge. The musicians may know their part and when to come in, but when music calls for speeding up, slowing down, or shifting to a new tempo, there needs to be a uniform interpretation of what “accelerando,” “ritardando,” “allegro,” etc., mean. Tempo markings are highly subjective. In a small ensemble, it’s no big deal for the musicians to “feel” the tempo among themselves. In a large orchestra, it’s much more difficult.
      – He rehearses the group. The conductor establishes the things I mentioned in the first part in rehearsals.
      – He interprets the music. Again, even with notation, much of music is up to interpretation. HOW should the violins play the crescendo in measure four (for example)? How should the French horns articulate a marcato accent? Through rehearsals and careful study of the score—again, the conductor has the FULL picture, whereas the musicians just have their parts—the composer brings the music to life through interpretation.

      I’m sure there is much more. You can get a doctorate in conducting! What they do in such a program, I do not know, but I don’t think it’s an example of credential inflation in this case.

      I hope that helps! That is my layman’s understanding of it. In smaller groups, a conductor is not really necessary; in a larger group, a conductor is essential.

      One other thing: the conductor himself is part of the performance! An energetic composer can be as fun to watch as the orchestra itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Outstanding answer, Port. Thanks so much for understanding that I really was looking for clarification. I didn’t know that the ‘groups of instruments’ only have their parts – or am I taking that too literally? So, correct me if I’m wrong … the conductor knows more about the entire piece than the individual musicians do and therefore must indicate thru’ baton and body language the intent of the composer. Is that right?

    And I agree – as much dunce as I am about classical music, I have noticed that some conductors are a hoot. Are you old enough to remember – or know – the comedian, Victor Borge? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo3WS-UHHmY

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, you’re welcome! Believe me, I get asked that question a LOT. Students also wonder the same thing.

      Yes, each instrument has its own part. For example, the cellists will have the cello part. As a musician in the ensemble, you will obviously get a good sense for the piece as a whole, as you’re literally part of its performance and surrounded by sound. But the conductor has a full score—with everyone’s parts—in front of him, flipping through it as he conducts the orchestra. He sees connections that the individual musicians might not hear.

      Your summary is correct, yes. There’s also a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, as I mentioned: rehearsals.

      I will check out the link shortly! The name rings a bell.

      Liked by 1 person

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