Sunday, April 8, 2007

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major

Beethoven was the eldest of three brothers born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany. Introduced to the piano and music theory by his father, he began composing as a child and became a skilled keyboardist in the court of the Elector of Cologne at Bonn. After seeking instruction from Mozart in Vienna at age 17, he was called home to handle family responsibilities after his father’s illness and mother’s death. While still in Bonn at age 21, he met Joseph Haydn and arranged to study with him in Vienna, where Beethoven arrived in 1792 (the year after Mozart’s passing), and would eventually spend the rest of his life.

For the next ten years, Beethoven steadily developed his career through performing his own piano works, which display the essence of his music: complex and innovative, with heavy textures and focused development of musical themes that evoke a seriousness of style for which he has always been known and admired.

By age thirty, Beethoven’s progressive loss of hearing (of unknown cause or cure) began to have a profound effect on him emotionally as well as artistically, and he sought refuge in the rural village of Heiligenstadt near Vienna. Long solitary walks in the country cheered him, and he wrote “No one can love the country as I do ... my bad hearing does not trouble me here. In the country, every tree seems to speak to me, saying ‘Holy! Holy!’.” The first sketches for his Sixth Symphony were made here in 1802, and he would later finish this symphony, along with the Fifth, in Heiligenstadt in the summers of 1807 and 1808.

Symphonies No. 5 and 6 (cataloged originally in the opposite order) were premiered on December 22nd, 1808 at a single four hour concert of all new music in the Theater an der Wien. Initial enthusiasm for the works was dampened by the unheated hall and under rehearsed orchestra.

Historians suggest Beethoven may have borrowed the idea for his five-movement “pastoral” symphony from his now-forgotten predecessor Justin Knecht, whose “Musical Portrait of Nature” was published in 1784 and also contained five movements (unusual for a classical symphony) bearing similar titles.

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is, in the composer’s own words, “a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds,” a concept that is evident in the names of its five movements (the last three of which are played without intervening pause).
I. “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country,” (Allegro) evoking the rhythms of nature through repetition of short, light melodic themes. 
II. “Scene at the brook,” (Andante) depicting flowing water and calls of the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet). 
III. “Happy gathering of country folk,” (Allegro) a jubilant dance movement, later claimed to have been his impression of a village band. 
IV. “Thunderstorm,” (Allegro) whose bursts of brass and percussion punctuate a dark, dissonant background of strings. 
V. “Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm,” (Allegretto) following familiar form, with moments of harmonious ease and prayer-like whisper.
First titled “Recollections of Country Life,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 has become a standard in symphonic literature, and a favorite of orchestras and listeners alike, showing us not the surly, frustrated and eccentric bachelor of popular lore, but a deeply sensitive, observant and joyful artist at home among the natural elements.

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