with Robert Levin
October 16-22, 2016
BEETHOVEN: Symhony No. 6 “Pastoral”
BEETHOVEN: Concerto for Fortepiano No. 3
By Bruce Lamott
Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”)
In music appreciation texts, Beethoven is usually given his own chapter, while Mozart and Haydn often share space in the Classic period, as do Bach and Handel in the Baroque. The music of Beethoven resists the designation of either “Classic” or “Romantic,” as these conventional stylistic characteristics dynamically coexist often within the same composition. Both works in this program come from his popular middle period, a time when he infuses and transforms the conventions of the previous style with a more personal reflection and dramatic expression brought on in part by his increasing deafness.
The famous four-hour all-Beethoven concert on December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien in featured the premieres of four major works: his Sixth and Fifth Symphonies—in that order, opening each half of the program, the Fourth Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist, and the Choral Fantasy; in addition were two movements from his C Major Mass, a concert aria, and piano extemporization by the composer. The staggering (to us) length, not uncommon in the period, is only exceeded by the staggering high quality of the selections, even if the performance of the under-rehearsed forces did not rise to the occasion.
Tonight’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”) opened that legendary concert while the Fifth followed the intermission; this order may have been more than incidental, as they encompass the yin and yang of Beethoven’s stylistic transformation. The optimism and joie de vivre of the Sixth is set against the brooding psychological turmoil of the Fifth. Beethoven’s epigraph to the Sixth, “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting,” is itself indicative of his changing aesthetic. Tone-painting, the literal representation of extramusical associations, was in full bloom in the Classic era, most notably in Haydn’s celebrated Creation and Seasons. But Beethoven’s epigraph, more feeling than painting, declares his intention to surpass mere representation, for he found that “All tone painting in instrumental music loses its value if pushed too far.”
Nonetheless, there is tone-painting a’plenty in the Pastoral Symphony– bird calls, babbling brooks, peasant dances, and even a thunderstorm. The symphony opens with a drone, a musical signifier of country life since the Baroque period. Imitating the bagpipes or musettes played by peasants and shepherds, drones appear prominently in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the “Pifa” in Handel’s Messiah, and in Haydn’s Creation and string quartets. The harmonic simplicity and gentle dynamics of the opening movement instill the “pleasant feelings” of the composer, who once wrote, “What happiness I shall feel in wandering among groves and woods, and among trees, and plants, and rocks! No man on earth can love the country as I do.” Considering his encroaching deafness, it may be that Beethoven was preserving in musical terms the memories of the sounds he could no longer hear.
The second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” is the most literal representation in the piece, with muted strings babbling in gentle triplets under a whimsical violin melody. Nic has chosen to perform a rarely performed alternative ending that Beethoven composed for this movement. Adding to the naturalism of the scene, Beethoven identifies the contributions of the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinets) in the score. According to Anton Schindler, his friend (and unreliable biographer), the composer also included the song of the yellowhammer (or yellow bunting) as well in his musical aviary. The scherzo is a rollicking peasant dance in which the oboe, perhaps a little tipsy, enters on the wrong beat. Then a boisterous contredanse in 2/4 erupts instead of the customary B-section of the A-B-A form.
This is the only one of Beethoven’s symphonies with an additional middle movement; and as he does in the Fifth, he withholds instruments for dramatic impact, this time saving the piccolo, trombones, and timpani to add power and brilliance to a thunderstorm. And just as he does in the Fifth, he melds the final movements into a single scene in which the final movement becomes a resolution of earlier conflict .
In the calm after the storm, the clarinets and horns exchange a yodel–once again over bucolic drones—which becomes the first phrase of a hymn of thanks notated by the composer in the score, “Herr, wir danken dir” (Lord, we thank thee). As human interaction became more problematic because of his deafness (as well as irascible personality), Beethoven found in nature not only solitude but spiritual renewal; the “happy and grateful feelings” of the final movement are reflected in his frequent diary entries praising the beauties of nature: “Does it not seem as though every tree said to me ‘Holy, holy!’. . . In such a wooded scene in the heights there is calm, calm in which to serve Him.”
Piano Concerto No. 3
Unlike today’s piano virtuosos, whose preferences for Steinway, Bösendorfer, or Baldwin are choices between instruments of similar construction, Beethoven composed at a time when fortepianistic diversity was at an all-time high. Vienna, once called “Clavierland” by Mozart, was at the confluence of instrument types that differed not only in touch and sound, but in the basic mechanism of tone-production, called the action. A major concern was that of “escapement,” the means to prevent the rebound of a hammer, the largest of which weighed about one gram, and the restriking of the string. The Austro-Germans Stein and Streicher used a “bouncing action” (Prellmechanik) with a shallow key dip and extremely light touch, while the French (Erard) and English builders (Broadwood), used a “pushing action” (Stossmechanik) with a heavier touch and louder tone. The latter is the one which survived the Darwinian evolution of piano actions, to the extinction of all others.
All of these builders provided Beethoven with their particular brand of fortepiano, and as his hearing deteriorated, he became increasingly partial to the Broadwood.
Beethoven’s C Minor Concerto had a long gestation, and was the first of his piano concertos that is more Romantic than Classic in style. His intention was to perform it in his first public concert on April 2, 1800, but didn’t get around to finishing it until three years later, on April 5, 1803. Even then it had not made the transition brain to paper, as recounted in this page-turner’s nightmare:
I saw almost nothing but empty leaves, at most on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me and scribbled down to serve as clues for him. He played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time [three years?] to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly, and he heartily laughed at it.
The opening theme of the concerto is a terse declaration of the key: a rising minor triad (do, mi, sol), a descending half-scale, and an emphatically repeated cadence figure of the sort to be expected at the end, not the beginning, of a piece. This triad provides a marker throughout the movement for tracking Beethoven’s ventures into remote keys. The first theme is all Romantic Sturm und Drang (storm and stress)–mood swings from minor to major and back, dynamic shifts, fragmentary phrases, and harmonic instability undermine the certainty of the opening phrase. The second thematic group, however, restores Classic composure with a tune in the sensitive style called Empfindsamkeit . The lyrical melody divides into clearly delineated phrases ending with sighing appoggiaturas resolving on weak beats (labeled with gender-insensitivity as a “feminine cadence”). The opening theme then returns, appropriately this time, at the conclusion of the orchestra’s exposition.
The piano mollifies the opening theme with decorative scales and trills before dispensing with it altogether in favor of melody in the singing style. Indeed, for the rest of the movement Beethoven sets up a kind of Orpheus v. Furies dialogue between the lyrically inclined piano and the incisive interruptions of the orchestra; he will do this again in the slow movement of his next piano concerto. This takes advantage of the delicacy and fleetness of the Viennese fortepiano while maintaining the overall intensity of mood in the orchestra. Only in the fully notated cadenza does Beethoven allow the instrument to “thunder” as best it can; this dichotomy, of course, is lost in a performance on the modern piano.
Piano and orchestra are in full accord in the serene second movement, introduced by a quasi-improvisatory solo on a sentimental melody in the style of Classical fantasia. The key of E major is surprising: three sharps instead of the anticipated three flats of C minor or its relative, E-flat major. It is dreamy and pensive throughout, without the mercurial mood swings and sudden dynamic outbursts that often make headphones so challenging when listening to Beethoven.
The finale is a demonstration of what the late Wye Jamison Allanbrook calls the “secular commedia” of the late eighteenth century. Unlike the profound personal expression found in Beethoven the Romantic , this jaunty rondo presents a passing parade of musical topics, as found in the works of his mentor Joseph Haydn. Opening with a theme with offbeat accents hinting at “Turkism” (alla turca), the lineup includes skittish scales decorated with Lombard rhythms (short-long, aka “Scotch snap”), fanfares, a clarinet melody (espressivo) in the elegant galant style, a fugato in the learned style of the Baroque period, and a surprising Presto coda in 6/8 which winds up the work like the finale of an opera buffa (comic opera).