1. Allegro ma non troppo - Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside)
2. Andante molto mosso - Szene am Bach (Scene by the brook)
3. Allegro - Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry gathering of country folk)
4. Allegro - Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder, storm)
5. Allegretto - Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd's Song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm)
Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) sixth symphony (1808) distinguishes itself well from the composer's other eight symphonies, and most particularly from his pompous fifth. Both written simultaneously and premiered in the same concert in 1808, the symphonies’ differences are drastically apparent. His fifth, now seen as the epitome of ‘absolute music’, contrasts well with the sixth symphony’s explicitly programmatic nature. A contrast between the two also highlights especially well the sixth’s humbler and gentler character. It explores a more intimate and hedonistic side of the stereotypically ‘angry’ composer. It was inspired by Beethoven’s frequent visits to rural areas just out of Vienna. In being purely instrumental, this symphony became a crucial predecessor in the development of ‘programme music’, all while staying true to the composer’s characteristic structural self-sufficiency. It is debated whether the programme should enforce a particular interpretation of the work or if it is simply an optional guide to more easily interpret his aims. What is sure, is that even as a more placid work compared to its more ambitious surrounding symphonies, its humble ingenuity should not be ignored.
The symphony contains five, instead of the customary four, movements. Each of which are titled meticulously by the composer himself. They paint a vivid image of the countryside's happenings, phenomena and feelings - both those evoked by nature itself and within Beethoven. The sonorous and bright key of F major is not used by accident. With a vibrant dominant of C Major and darker minor counterpart of F minor, the key of F major presents Beethoven with a range harmonic opportunities. Its subdominant, Bb major, used in the second movement, works well as both a comfortably joyful major key and an entry to the more sombre world of flats. Beethoven's inclusion of forms such as the sonata, rondo and scherzo is not revolutionary, but he uses them well to depict scenes and images differently to much of his music before. Whether this is in the goal of evoking a dance or a thunderstorm, his compositional flexibility is marked.
The first movement, 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside', begins with a calming F major drone. Above enters the symphony’s first theme. An effortless line, the theme's first phrase finishes with a slight question, bringing the orchestra to a gentle halt. The theme is then immediately recommenced and playfully turned into a dialogue between the lower and upper strings. The voices join to play a seamless choral-like phrase consequently strengthened by the basses. The theme’s signature 'quick quick long long' figure rises in intensity and jolliness bringing us to a glorious full orchestral version of the original theme. Cheerful feelings are appropriately conjured in just these first few minutes. Beethoven goes on to include new themes, all while retaining a warm and full colour in the strings and simultaneously gentle and authoritative wind passages. Slowly intensifying interweaving lines lead us to a triumphant declamation in the strings accompanied by sturdy fifths in the winds and horns. The movement's development begins immediately after. Like a blooming flower, the signature rhythmic motif grows incrementally, both harmonically and in dynamic. It is carried from key to key and timbre to timbre, all while supported by a rustic bassline. The motif undergoes various other manipulations during the course of the development only for the awesome returning theme to creep in. The movement ends in a both tender and confident manner, representative more largely of the movement's nuanced character.
The second movement, 'Scene by the brook', begins with flowing figures in the strings joined by a loose melody in the violins and then winds. With their trills and embellishments, the violins enrich the calm brook’s image. Although subtle, many other lines and underlying colours are added, such as held notes from the oboe and spurts of colour from the flutes in the melody's climax. The section finishes with a short, embellished, ending message from the violins and winds. A more active phrase ensues. Short staccato passages by the lower strings and later, winds, are answered by a sweet descending line from the violins. This passage is made almost forgettable with the music returning to its original section, but now with a different goal in mind: to grow. Adding various contrapuntal lines and conversational moments, we arrive to a more complex and full orchestral moment. Near the movement's middle, the line until then seen as a bi-product of the initial flowing figures becomes a melody in itself. It is explored in a range of keys, creating previously unheard colours and harmonies. It invites even more developed manipulations of the movement’s simple motifs. With a return to the movement’s beginning, the movement then ends softly and discreetly.
The third movement, 'Merry gathering of country folk' is a scherzo. Its trio is fiercely animated, even in its quieter, sneakier moments. A more expansive and epic passage then arrives, reinforcing the movement's rustic and rugged character. The horns, in particular, are used to strengthen this image. The movement goes on to musically explore all that a 'merry gathering' can entail: lively dances, joyous shouts and laughter and vivacious interactions. We return to the trio in an ever more triumphant and epic manner, only to end abruptly and move into the most tumultuous of movements, 'Thunder, storm'. The only one in a minor key, as well as the shortest, this fourth movement does not waste any time in creating drama. Among its explosive moments, a feeling of impending disaster is omnipresent in the quieter moments where we hear intensifying descending chromatic lines and disturbingly intense, held wind lines. After its only short three and a half minutes, we move seamlessly into the final movement, 'Shepherd's Song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm'.
The transition is impressively reminiscent (or in this case, foretelling), of Brahmsian and Mahlerian orchestral colours. Especially the composers’ respective first symphonies. The transition only uses notes of the dominant triad, quickening in rhythm and flawlessly bringing in a sonorous new tonic. It resembles a shepherd’s call across the mountains or fields. In contrast to the other more meandering F major movements, this one boasts an unapologetic robust theme, using almost only notes from the tonic's triad. The full might of the orchestra is felt in much of the movement, with the inclusion of two trombones and an expansive orchestration. The movement’s initial transition is used often to invite new sections and themes. This is helped by the movement's rondo form, where the theme’s impending return creates a continued stability to the otherwise heterogenous movement. The form is ingeniously used to explore different colours and scenes, all while reminding the listener of the movement's overall cheerful nature. The movement, and symphony, ends in a humbling perfect cadence. No pounding repetition or outrageously dragged out cadences are needed this time. Instead, a graceful and final collective sound is chosen to unite the orchestra’s textures so brilliantly and humbly explored by the composer throughout the whole symphony.
Rita Fernandes, November 2020
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