Program Notes: Beethoven’s Pastorale

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastorale”

In 1808 Beethoven completed his sixth symphony at a time during which he was enjoying a rising popularity, albeit one without financial security. He already had written some of his most memorable and lasting works and was a composer fully in possession of technical mastery and supreme musicality—in other words, even if he had composed no more, his place in music history would have been secure. His previous symphony, of course, is now the quintessential model of musical works that exemplify so-called economy of means, integrated technique, unified composition, or any other number of terms that simply mean one thing more or less: it’s all about the music—not any experience or object in the physical world. And, of course, that famous composition stems from the skilled manipulation of just a few basic ideas, wonderfully worked out. As we all know from the fifth symphony: “ta-ta-ta-taaah!” This approach to composing became the high altar for the rest of the century for those who reproached music with “stories” or about “real” things.

And then Beethoven did something quite unexpected (being Beethoven): he wrote a symphony about something in our real world of experience! Beethoven openly described his sixth symphony as a reflection of feelings about being in the countryside, replete with birdcalls, a rainstorm, and happy peasants. He nicknamed the work, “Pastoral,” himself, and even precisely noted in the score the names of specific species of birds when he wrote imitations of their calls. However, he was intent that the listener try not to exercise his imagination too specifically, when he cautioned that the symphony was really “. . . more the expression of feelings than painting.” The feelings were good, though, and after the incredible intensity of the fifth symphony, this one is full of serenity, peaceful contentment, and the untroubled enjoyment of nature. Unique in Beethoven’s symphonies, the composer gave each of the five movements (he added an additional one to the standard four) an explanatory title.

We shouldn’t expect loose formal construction aimed at simply illustrating bucolic scenes with pictorialism driving the cart, like so many composers later in the century. Rather, in his distinctive and typical fashion he was able to serve both the God of architectural rigor and the Mammon of storytelling. That is, we experience the feelings and understand the allusions to birds, storms, and peasants, but all of it is thoroughly shaped by the same principles of tight, logical musical construction that we expect in a more abstract piece like a string quartet, or even a Bach organ fugue. It takes musical skill and inspiration of a high order to pull this off. It’s simply a “perfect classic symphony” that also happens to create a magic evocation of the outdoors.

The first movement is notable for its relaxed exploration of clear-cut themes with little of the tension and drive that we have come to associate with the composer. The harmonies stick to relatively close and straightforward relationships, with little exploration of the remote. There are plenty of rustic little tunes to entertain us as Beethoven skillfully explores the description of the feelings that he alluded to in its title. The second movement is clearly one of his great ones, wherein the composer, as did Schubert, conjures up the brook of the title with a constant murmuring string accompaniment. Listen carefully near the end of the movement for the famous passage of the three birdcalls: one hears successively quite accurate depictions of a nightingale (flute), a thrush (oboe), and a cuckoo (clarinet). The third movement is the standard scherzo, or dance movement, and here we encounter a country festival with a country band. The middle section of this movement is noteworthy for its duple meter (rather like a march), rather than the usual triple (think of a fast waltz). Listen for a bit of Beethoven’s rough sense of humor in the bass notes of the second bassoon—a real country bandsman! The fourth movement, of course, is the storm, and Beethoven really goes after some degree of realism. He adds the piccolo and two trombones for the first time in this symphony, and they help to achieve the thunder, rain, lightning, and wind effects. Some listeners claim there is a rainbow at the end as the storm peacefully fades away. The last movement purports to be a “thanksgiving after the storm,” and is a bright rondo (a repeating theme). One hears a very simple, clear theme, possibly the shepherd’s tune, and after a through working out of its possibilities, the movement and the symphony ends with the theme played on a muted horn. One of Beethoven’s sunniest compositions thus ends peacefully, with a rare look into a part of his personality not often seen.

© 2015 William E. Runyan


George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin was arguably the most successful and talented of America’s composers of popular music. His songs constitute the core of the “American Songbook,” whether composed as part of his immensely successful Broadway shows, or as standalone popular tunes. Born of Russian Jewish immigrants, he didn’t evince his formidable musical talents until about the age of ten, when a piano was purchased for his older brother and later collaborator, Ira. Much to the latter’s relief, George soon commandeered the piano, and the rest is, as they say, history. His audiences rewarded him substantially—he is estimated to have become the wealthiest composer in modern times. He earned over a quarter of a million dollars for Rhapsody in Blue during the first decade of its life, and it still is bringing in the bucks, as witnessed by the commercials for United Airlines.

Rhapsody in Blue was written in great haste for a 1924 concert in New York’s Aeolian Hall given by Paul Whiteman, billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Notwithstanding the description, you wouldn’t have heard Stravinsky or Schoenberg that night, rather Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, and others of that ilk. However, Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninov, and other luminaries of music were in the audience. The poster read that Whiteman would be “assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin”—notice that the composer of “Kitten on the Keys” and “Dizzy Fingers” received top billing to the young Gershwin. Gershwin had been asked late in 1923 to write a piece for the Whiteman orchestra, but he had turned his attention to more pressing matters and was horrified to read in the New York Tribune on the 4th of January 1924 that he was to première a “jazz concerto” on February 12. Gershwin plunged in and presented his brilliant succession of “American” themes to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s orchestrator, to arrange for large jazz band and piano (the symphonic version came later), Gershwin didn’t have the skill to do this at this point in his career. The composition opened the second half of the concert, with Gershwin as soloist, using no music, and probably considerably “enhancing” the solo part. The opening clarinet glissando evocative of traditional Jewish Klezmer music kicked it off, and the now-familiar tunes came rushing by. While Rhapsody in Blue really is not “jazz,” and certainly not a concerto in the traditional sense, Gershwin turned out a masterpiece that is a model of what came to be called “symphonic jazz.”

What is specifically germane to appreciating this composition is the importance of so-called “serious” or “classical” musical interests and training in Gershwin’s life that is quite unprecedented for someone who enjoyed his kind of success. He certainly was not some sort of untutored musical genius who later sought legitimacy after having proven himself in the popular world. Rather, as a young boy, he studied and performed under traditional piano teachers the music of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Later, he journeyed to Paris to study under the famed teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger, as well as Maurice Ravel. However, both rejected him, afraid to compromise the genius evident in his burgeoning success. While in Paris he met and admired the music of eminent composers such as Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Milhaud. Gershwin’s ambitions were such that long after he had achieved the kind of success that any popular composer would have envied, he assiduously studied formal composition with established teachers. And he was successful. His Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess are masterpieces of his unique bridging of the so-called gap between popular art and “high” art.

© 2015 William E. Runyan

Franz Liszt, Les Préludes, S.97 Poème symphonique No. 3

“What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song, the first and solemn note of which is sounded by death?” So goes the putative source of the title of the first of Liszt’s thirteen tone poems. It is from Alphonse de Lamartine’s “Nouvelles méditations poétiques,” and alludes to life as but a prelude to death. Scholars have fought over the truth of the inspiration for Liszt, but it fits, and the evidence has some weight. Liszt was in the forefront of composers who were committed to striking out in completely new directions during the nineteenth century, and who largely abandoned traditional forms, such as the symphony. Liszt’s solution was his origination of what he called a “symphonic poem,” a single-movement composition of symphonic proportions, which focused on the exploration of a single idea, poetic content, or even a narrative depiction. Liszt, in fact, drew upon a variety of sources for his muse in the composition of his tone poems: literature, myth, visual arts, or whatever stimulated his creativity.

To engender formal integrity and more or less “pull” his new genre together, Liszt used a technique that takes a very simple little melodic fragment or motive and employs it as the single source for the whole piece. The motive is usually a sharply chiseled, distinctive affair that, on the one hand, is capable of being transformed into a remarkable variety of unique figures and melodies, and yet, on the other, maintains its identity throughout these transformations. So it is with Les préludes.

The initial three notes serve throughout as the origin of the themes of each section, which differ greatly in mood, tempo, and key. As Liszt explores his take on the meaning of the text, the theme serves his various purposes, tying it all together, whether the subject is love, war, death, nature, and more. It is not necessary to track each guise of the theme as it evolves, but it may be easier than you think. With this idea Liszt wrought a major innovation in Romantic musical style, and provided a model for a legion of composers who took up the technique and the genre. While of his thirteen symphonic poems only Les préludes remained in the standard repertoire, he led the way for generations of composers. Subsequent audiences have come to enjoy symphonic (or tone) poems as an integral and essential element of concert life.

© 2015 William E. Runyan