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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphonies Nos 6 & 8

National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
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Label: National Symphony Orchestra
Recording details: Various dates
Concert Hall at John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, USA
Produced by Blanton Alspaugh
Engineered by Mark Donahue
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 66 minutes 25 seconds

Cover artwork: Beethoven Symphonies Abstracted Art by Mo Willems (b1968)

Two of Beethoven's most popular symphonies—the 'Pastoral' No 6 and No 8 with its trademark combination of humour and seriousness—in taut performances from the NSO and Music Director Gianandrea Noseda.

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Symphony No 6 in F major 'Pastoral' Op 68 (1808)
Many musicians and writers on music in the 18th century were preoccupied with music’s expressive and representative powers. Time and again, composers attempted to demonstrate that music was able, even without the help of words, to depict specific feelings and emotions, and even to narrate a sequence of events. One Justin Heinrich Knecht advertised his 1784 symphony, Musical Portrait of Nature, in a music journal on the very same page on which the notice for the 14-year-old Beethoven’s first published works (three piano sonatas) appeared. Knecht’s program, with its shepherds, streams, birds, thunderstorm, and clearing of the sky, is so similar to what Beethoven would have in his “Pastoral” that it is almost certain Beethoven knew Knecht’s work.

Beethoven not only loved nature but, as many of his friends attested, worshipped it. Haydn and Mozart were not known for roaming the Austrian countryside; Beethoven, for his part, spent long and happy hours in the woods. He often retreated from Vienna to outlying areas where he admired Nature with a capital N as a true spiritual child of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the German Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement.

Beethoven became fascinated with the musical sounds of nature years before the composition of the “Pastoral” Symphony: as early as 1803, he notated in one of his sketchbooks a musical rendition of the sound of water in a stream. Even earlier, he made a musical reference to nature in the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, the tragic document in which Beethoven first wrote about his encroaching deafness in 1802 (the Testament was addressed to Beethoven’s two brothers but never sent). “What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” It is difficult not to think of this mention of the shepherd when listening to the “Shepherd’s Song” in the finale of the Sixth Symphony. The love for the sounds of nature became inseparable from the pain of not being able to hear them.

The Sixth Symphony, composed almost simultaneously with the Fifth, then, has more in common with that work than one might think. One similarity between the two works is the linkage of the last movements. Just as the Fifth Symphony’s gloomy C minor Allegro is connected to the finale without a pause, the last three movements of the “Pastoral”, the country dance, the storm, and the thanksgiving song, form an uninterrupted sequence, and in both cases, an earlier conflict seamlessly segues into a positive resolution.

The bird songs and thunderclaps are not the only examples where Beethoven employed sounds from the world around him. His secretary, the often unreliable Anton Schindler, reported the following anecdote, relating to the third movement, which he could hardly have invented himself:

Beethoven asked me if I had not observed how village musicians often played in their sleep, occasionally letting their instruments fall and remaining entirely quiet, then awakening with a start, throwing in a few vigorous blows or strokes at a venture, but generally in the right key, and then falling asleep again; he had tried to copy these poor people in his “Pastoral” symphony.

Schindler then proceeded to point out those measures in which “the sleep-drunken second bassoon [repeats] a few tones, while contra-bass, violoncello, and viola keep quiet; on page 108 we see the viola wake up and apparently awaken the violoncello—and the second horn also sounds three notes, but at once sinks into silence again.”

More often than not, however, the symphony, as Beethoven himself pointed out, is more an expression of feeling than painting. Beethoven may have been responsive to extra-musical inspirations, yet he was first and foremost a musician. And he was never a more “absolute” musician than he was in his programmatic Sixth Symphony.

Symphony No 8 in F major Op 93 (1812)
At first sight, one might think that Beethoven took a step back after completing his fiery and, at the time, super-modern Seventh Symphony, and wrote a companion piece in the style of his elders, Haydn and Mozart. That is, at least, the impression one gets from reading many earlier commentaries. Yet, it is clear that there is not a single measure in this piece that could have been written 20 years earlier, even by Beethoven. One should not be misled by the relative brevity of the Eighth, or by the fact that it contains a minuet, an older type of middle movement than the scherzo Beethoven had been more recently cultivating. In almost every respect—the variety of the harmonies, the richness of the orchestration, the individuality of the formal design—the symphony is anything but backward-looking. Beethoven did seem to revisit the world of his late teacher Joseph Haydn, but he did so without giving up the stylistic accomplishments of his mature years. The result was a real tour de force that Beethoven was justifiably proud of: he told his student Carl Czerny that he considered the Eighth Symphony a “better” work than the Seventh.

We 21st-century listeners hardly need to put one of these masterworks above the other, recognizing as we do the individuality of every one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. The individuality of the Eighth lies, to no small degree, in the combination of humor and seriousness (or, if you prefer, looking back and looking forward) that is peculiar to this work.

Take the first movement, Allegro vivace e con brio. It starts with a jocular theme whose beginning is played forte by the full orchestra, the middle piano by the winds, and the end forte by everyone again. The melody itself could perhaps be characterized as light, but the vehemence it receives from the orchestration (note especially the brass and timpani!) makes it sound a lot more serious. The movement is filled with rhythmic energy; sudden pauses, tonal shifts, and mood changes abound. In the development section, the music becomes highly dramatic, even violent, for a few seconds before the recapitulation begins in a triple forte, with the theme in the bass. These moments are anything but light and humorous; the same is true of most of the lengthy coda, before bursting out in a new double forte explosion. Beethoven first wrote this coda much shorter than it is in the final version. He later brought back the humor to the ending of the movement by adding a new fanfare version of the theme that suddenly fades into pianissimo as the first notes of the melody appear again as a soft-spoken farewell.

According to the well-known story, the second-movement Allegretto scherzando was inspired by the ticking of the metronome, newly invented by Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. Beethoven used the same melody in a canon written in 1812 on the words “Ta ta ta ta…lieber, lieber Mälzel”. The charming and witty little piece is not the first instance Beethoven replaced the slow movement with a quasi-scherzo; earlier examples include the C minor string quartet (Op 18 No 4) and the piano sonata in E flat major (Op 31 No 3). Scherzos normally take the place of minuets of earlier times; yet in these cases, as in the Eighth Symphony, both the Scherzo and the Minuet were retained. The Eighth is the only Beethoven symphony to have this characteristic.

The third movement, Tempo di menuetto, looks back on the minuets of old from a certain distance and with noticeable nostalgia. Yet, the graceful minuet-like melody is allowed to appear only after two measures of heavily accented ostinato (a melodic pattern repeated without changes). The brass and timpani continue to punctuate the gentle minuet with seemingly incongruous sforzatos (stressed single notes) that would more properly belong in a Beethoven scherzo. The recapitulation of the first theme on the solo bassoon and the triumphant fortissimo closing figure on the horns and trumpets are also unexpected events that make this minuet more than an innocent evocation of the 18th century. The trio, or middle section, is a dialog between the pair of horns and the first clarinet over the lively accompaniment of the cellos. It is interesting that the violins and violas are silent throughout the trio except for one short phrase.

The finale, Allegro vivace, is the most grandiose of the symphony’s movements. It starts in a whisper on high-pitched instruments only, but the whole orchestra soon enters in a thundering fortissimo on C-sharp, a note foreign to the key of F major. The bustling orchestral activity continues until it is suddenly interrupted by a lyrical second theme that also starts with a “wrong” note in the key of A flat major (instead of the expected C major, which the music only reaches after this elaborate detour). The development section takes us to many new keys and introduces the main melody in many new guises.

Following the recapitulation, the symphony ends with one of Beethoven’s longest codas; it is more extended than even that of the first movement and, indeed, takes up almost half of the entire finale. It includes a new subject, a return of the main theme, and repeated emphasis on that off-key C sharp we heard at the beginning of the movement. In the last minute, when listeners might assume that the journey has reached its end (and the only thing remaining being to confirm the home key), this C-sharp becomes the springboard for a whole passage in the very distant key of F sharp minor, out of which Beethoven extricates himself with a real masterstroke. After a return of the lyrical second theme, and yet another variant of the first one, there is a seemingly unending succession of F major chords, high and low, soft and loud, and the ultimate joke of the symphony is that we can never be sure when it will be over.

Peter Laki © 2023

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