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