Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8

14 Oct 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93 (28 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 6 in F major, op.68 “Pastoral” (49 min.)

That for Beethoven, as for the “Sturm und Drang” poets and thinkers, nature was associated with a state of internal peace as a symbolic antithesis to civilization, is readily apparent in his Sinfonia pastorale. With the famous work, he created a light idyllic landscape of bucolic cheerfulness: the music does not press forward in a targeted fashion, urging onwards. Instead, the symphonic events are governed by images of nature moving within themselves, from the “Arrival in the countryside” to the “Scene by the brook”, from the “Merry gathering of country folk” to stormy weather.

But Beethoven was not interested in creating musical illustrations, as he stated in the well-known line “more the expression of feeling than painting”. This is because although there were definitely contemporary models for the subject of the Pastorale – for instance, the symphony Le Portrait musical de la Nature by the Stuttgart organist, conductor and composer Justin Heinrich Knecht, composed in 1782-83 – Beethoven understood the “Pastorale” here as a symbol for a higher world order into which man is integrated harmoniously.

Before the Sixth Symphony, Sir Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Eighth, whose reception was characterized by terms like “lightheartedness” and “humour” early on – and with good reason: in Anton Schindler’s recounting, the Allegretto Scherzando reflects the mechanical works of metronome inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, since the main theme reverts to the so-called Mälzel Canon WoO 162, which Beethoven composed in the spring of 1812 at a companionable farewell dinner to the words “Ta ta ta ta … lieber Mälzel, leben Sie wohl, sehr wohl! Banner der Zeit, großer Metronom” Ta ta ta ta ... dear Mälzel, fare thee well, fare thee very well! Banner of the time, great metronome. And Louis Spohr felt that the Finale with its rapidly changing ideas was like someone sticking out his tongue in the middle of a conversation, while Carl Dahlhaus wrote of a “humoristic demonstration of the impossibility of a solution”. Constantin Floros appropriately called the movement “probably the most brilliant example of the art of the imprévu from the time before Berlioz.”

Beethoven the Symphonist III

Contrasting worlds in F major – the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies

Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93

“L. van Beethoven, who took the cures first at Teplitz, then in Carlsbad and is now in Eger, has again composed two new symphonies,” reported the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung on 2 September 1812. Once before he had presented two symphonies in a double pack: the Fifth and the Sixth. Now it was Nos. 7 and 8. Works created in parallel can be found in all of Beethoven’s creative phases, an illustration of his dialectical thinking. Multiple sketches of first ideas are directly followed by multiple alternative sketches. The source of our information, as always, are Beethoven’s sketchbooks – in the case of the Seventh and Eighth, the so-called Petter Sketchbook, named for its erstwhile owner Gustav Adolf Petter. The chronology of Beethoven’s work on these two symphonies sheds light on their parallelism.

It seems that initially he planned his “Eighth” not as a symphony but as a piano concerto: the sketches contain several instances of the words “solo” and “tutti”. In fact, a third project is also detectible, one in D minor, which however was not pursued. We know that the shift from concerto to symphony had transpired by the end of May 1812 because on 25 May Beethoven wrote to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel: “I’m writing 3 new symphonies, one of which is already finished.” Thus he must have made rapid progress on the second of those “3 new symphonies” in the summer of that year. The beginning of the fair copy of the score bears the indication “Sinfonia Linz in the month of October 1812”. It would have been completed no later than the beginning of March 1813, when Beethoven offered “two entirely new symphonies” to the Graz benefit-concert organizer Varena. The announcement in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung was probably a bit premature...

Beethoven himself already distinguished between the sister works when he announced this double pack, referring to the “large one in A” and the “little one in F”. By that he certainly meant the difference in ambition, not just in playing time. Whereas the Seventh’s first movement is prefaced by an extensive introduction, the Eighth gets down to business straight away. And while the A minor Allegretto of the Seventh builds up to serious grandeur, the second movement of the Eighth is based on an adaptation of the witty canon Beethoven had composed for Maelzel, inventor of the metronome. Probably the best way to characterize the difference is to construe “large” as “weighty” and “little” as “light-footed”. But there is still more to the “little one in F”: the way it plays with the tradition as it pays friendly but ironic homage to Haydn and Mozart, most clearly in the stolidly striding minuet. The last movement, by contrast, seems to be saying, “But now it’s my turn!”, bursting in as pure, original Beethoven and racing its themes through their metamorphoses at such breakneck speed as to leave the listener breathless. A reviewer at the time, nearly 200 years ago, gave expression to the audience’s consternation: it was impossible in this finale “to follow the composer’s torrent of ideas, to unravel this seemingly chaotic jumble”. To modern listeners, accustomed to today’s fast pace, however, allowing themselves to be drawn into the stream of events is a source of pleasure.

Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68: the Pastoral

Though Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is readily viewed as one of the first symphonic poems, the composer himself calls that characterization into question by describing the music as “more an expression of feeling than painting”. At the same time, the Pastoral is undeniably pervaded by the spirit of Romanticism. Feeling and sensitivity, poetry and emotion, grounded in the awakening sense of individualism, are concepts found among the movement’s forerunners – in the writings of Wackenroder, Novalis and Tieck – and at the beginning of the 19th century their ideas established themselves in the German intellectual world. When Beethoven emphasizes the “expression of feeling” and simultaneously distances himself from crude tone painting – thus from simple illustrations of natural phenomena – he is undoubtedly referring to an earlier work: Le Portrait musical de la Nature by Justin Heinrich Knecht, published in 1784 by Bossler in Speyer, who also brought out Beethoven’s first sonatas. Knecht never goes beyond pure description – he might perhaps be called an early, even too early, herald of programme music – while Beethoven is occupied with working out his material, inspired by his musical invention to elicit emotions in the listener. In short: music should “remain true to itself”.

Nevertheless, there are striking correspondences between the two works: the five-movement layout and the “programmatic indications” in the movement titles. Knecht’s (French) formulations can be translated as “Idyllic landscape” – “Thunderstorm” – “Song of thanksgiving to the creator”. Beethoven adds a sort of prologue, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country”, modifies the “Landscape” to a “Scene by the brook”, brings in people as a “Merry gathering of country folk” and specifies “Thunder” along with the “Storm”. A number of titles for the last movement preceded the version Beethoven sent to his publisher, “Shepherd’s Song: Happy feelings with thanks to the deity after the storm”. In fact, Beethoven’s choice of a name for the whole symphony vacillated between “Sinfonia caracteristica”, “Sinfonia pastorella” and “Sinfonie pastorale”.

In the autograph score there is a note to the copyist: “NB: All the German titles should be written in the first violin part.” Clearly he wished to convey these indications, even if, as we can tell from notes scattered over various pages of the sketches, he was not quite consistent. For example: “The listeners should be allowed to discover the situations.” Or: “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intention of the composer without many titles.” Finally, and with exclamation marks: “Even without titles the whole will be recognized as a matter more of feeling than of tone painting!”

It would be worth a try to play this music to a listener unencumbered by familiarity with the details and let him report his impressions. What would he “catch”? And how much greater would be the scope for associations? Surely the lyrical atmosphere, devoid of melancholy, would come across, and the “outbursts” in the two Allegro movements would register as welcome contrasts. The Merry Gathering would be easily placed in parallel to another Beethoven scherzo. Only the agitated movement that follows, also bursting in abruptly, would cause the listener to sit up and take notice: He’s never done anything like that before! And what about those birdcalls? Would they register as just an amusing added ingredient or as belonging to a bucolic setting and something original?

“All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far” – once again this pointer. But doesn’t the resolution of the Pastoral’s inherent contradiction lie in the words “pushed too far”, just as the comparative “more” in the first quote in no way denies the right of the “painting” to exist but simply gives precedence to the “expression of feeling”? The Sixth will always hold a special position in Beethoven’s output, if only as evidence that the transition between periods of music history is always fluid, including the movement from Classicism to Romanticism.

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon



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