Beethoven’s Flower Power Manifesto
Symphony No.6 “The Pastorale”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1826)
The time of the early Romantic around 1800 was an era of agitation. People and regimes across Europe were terrified by the bloody consequences of the French Revolution started in 1789. The society was undergoing deep restructuring and changes. Around that time, a young new leader called Napoléon Bonaparte was making a breakthrough and initially brought some hopes of a better world. Yet this ray-of-light proved short-lived as the French political and military leader crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804, soon bringing war and desolation to the rest of Europe.
Beethoven was a witness of his time and as an artist saw opportunities arising from these changes. The new political order in place in France and new moral values of the Enlightenments were spreading throughout the European continent and openly working towards the establishment of a new society and a new role for people to play in it. Beethoven, who was eighteen at the time of the French Revolution was still very sensitive to this ideal and wanted to dedicate his art to this new Humanity.
What better way to do this than by using the symphony as a modern musical form to celebrate it?
Beethoven wrote “only” nine symphonies, which is a relatively small output if it is measured against the standard compositional output of those days. As a comparison, Mozart has composed forty-one symphonies while Haydn produced hundred and six symphonies! However, quantity does not mean quality in music and Beethoven’s symphonies are all masterworks with no exception.
We can stress in particular the importance of the Symphony No.3 (Eroica), No.5, No.6 (The Pastorale) and No.9 (The Choral) as monuments. With these nine works, Ludwig van Beethoven single handedly shifted the musical paradigm of his time from the Classical to the Romantic era.
Beethoven gave birth to the modern form of symphony used by the great composers of the 19th century such as Brahms, Berlioz or Schumann and of the 20th century such as Bruckner and Mahler. His creativity seemed limitless and each of his symphonies was groundbreaking in terms of duration and character at the time of their release.
This input gave orchestral work a new meaning and a new quality. For instance, the Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) lasted fifty-five minutes and the Symphony No. 9 more than an hour. This was a much longer time than the standard thirty-five minute concert under the Classical Era.
The form of symphonies was also changing at that time from a relatively rigid and rational framework (Classical) to something intensively emotional and atmospheric (Romantic) with more complex harmonies and an expanded orchestra.
Throughout the 19th century, orchestras have grown in terms of size and instrument variety. This growth was necessary in order to express the force called by modern compositional principles heralded by Beethoven.
Whereas a typical orchestra under Mozart used to host thirty to thirty-five musicians, the same orchestra under Beethoven would grow to have up to seventy musicians in order to restitute the intensity of the 19th century symphonies. Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 here comes to mind.
Orchestras kept growing in size throughout the 19th century and went to have up to a hundred and twenty musicians in the early 20th Century. This was the case of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.8 in E-flat major premiered in 1910. This symphony is known as “The Symphony of a Thousand” and combined choir with orchestra. Such works usually necessitate tremendous instrumental and vocal forces.
From 1796, Beethoven then twenty-six years old started suffering from a gradual loss of hearing. By 1816, Beethoven was completely deaf.
“How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. My bad hearing does not trouble me here”: Beethoven in his correspondence to a friend.
It is known from this correspondence that Beethoven was extremely affected by this state, which had probably left psychological scars and influenced his creation. To relieve this stress, Beethoven would leave Vienna, where he lived and go for long walks in the countryside bordering Heiligenstadt or Döblin. There he could enjoy this nature he loved so much far from the pressure of the city and disconnected from his progressive deafness.
Overlapping the tormented Fifth symphony, an almost completely deaf Beethoven composed his Symphony No.6 in F Major, Op. 68, also known as “The Pastorale” at a time of big changes in his relationships. Both the Symphony No.5 and “The Pastorale” were published almost simultaneously and premiered together at the Theater-an-der-Wien in a famous four-hour concert on December-22, 1808.
“The Pastorale” is an atypical symphony and Beethoven’s only symphony composed with five movements unlike the usual four movements in usage at that time.
The First Movement was appropriately titled “Awakening of Happy Feelings on Arriving in the Country”. As it unwinds, the music raises feelings of a beautiful and scenic countryside. These feelings were precisely in Beethoven’s intent when he was composing “The Pastorale”. He specifically advised that his symphony was “more an expression of feelings than painting”.
By the opening, Beethoven grabs the attention of the listeners with an unconventional start of the Sonata (aka the First Movement). The Sonata starts with a shot musical phrase of a few notes that sound like a question, maybe an invitation to enjoy the country.
The Sonata is heavily based on repetitions and Beethoven obviously was a master at it. It is built on variations of the main theme yet played with different instruments and with changing keys or harmonies. Despite these repetitions, the feelings expressed are colorful, poetic and rich, giving each note of the Sonata a legitimity of purpose.
The Second Movement called “By the Brook” is slower than the Sonata and is based on the repetition of a few musical motives. Here this ornamentation and the mood are both bucolic and serene. Beethoven is sharing with us a moment of pure bliss and in this movement seems to be in communion with Mother Nature.
The remaining movements are in contrast more edgy and sharper. The Third Movement is called “A Happy Gathering of Country Folk” and is played allegro while the Fourth Movement brings us in the middle of a thunderstorm.
At this stage the music gets really stormy with the usage of trombones, an instrument usually rarely used in Beethoven’s symphonies, completed with loud timbales and harsh piccolos. Compared with Vivaldi’s gust in “The Four Seasons”, Beethoven’s “Gewitter, Sturm” offers a far more violent and expressive musical metaphor for a storm.
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Less intensive than its twin the Fifth Symphony, “The Pastoral” is a very gentle and sincere masterpiece.
In this regard, the author and music critic, Louis Biancolli is said to have described “The Pastoral” as “a healing power for the torment of spirit and stress of daily living”: A flower power manifest that celebrate the beauty of nature and life!