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They spoke about it
From Absolute Music to the Program
Symphony Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies were, for all intents and purposes, finished simultaneously. Already in 1803, amidst sketches of the Third symphony, “Eroica,” one finds a draft of the beginning of the Fifth and a motif entitled “murmur of the brook,” which would be used in the second movement of the Sixth. But it was not until 1805 that Beethoven undertook the Fifth—and a year later, the Sixth—in earnest. Both were completed in 1808, with Beethoven pausing several times to compose, among other works, the Symphony No.4, the Piano Concerto No.4, the Violin Concerto, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy.
The two symphonies were premiered on the evening of December 22, 1808 at an unusually substantial concert that also included the “Sanctus” of the Mass in C, the Piano Concerto No.4, a fantasy for solo piano (probably Op.77), and the Choral Fantasy. Beethoven was at the keyboard for all the works that included piano. But if the two symphonies were written concurrently, they are certainly not alike—indeed, they make a most contrasting pair.
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony No.5 follows the classical four-movement form, with the minuet being replaced by a scherzo, a variation Beethoven initiated with his Second symphony that would become the norm for generations to come. The work opens with the famous four-note theme made up of three identical eighth-notes descending to a lower half note. “This was destiny knocking at the door,” Beethoven would confide to a friend years later. As a result, the entire symphony is often interpreted as a representation of man’s struggle and triumph over fate, a struggle for which Beethoven himself—facing deafness, the supreme tragedy for a musician—seemed the ultimate symbol. Before serving as the foundation of the Fifth symphony, the “fate” motif had already appeared in several other of Beethoven’s compositions, from the “Andante” of the String Trio, Op.3 of 1792, to the main theme of the Piano Concerto No.4 (a contemporary of the symphony in question).
In the Fifth, this motif serves not only as a striking start to the symphony but, as E.T.A. Hoffmann noted as early as 1809 in his famous review written shortly after the score was published, it also seems to generate all of the principal themes of the other movements. “The phrases, in their intimate structure, their development, their instrumentation, the way they succeed one another, all work toward a single goal,” wrote Hoffmann; “but it is primarily the secret affinity between the themes that produces this unity.” The rhythm of the so-called “fate” motif even recurs in an explicit fortissimo in the theme of the “Scherzo.” As it also reappears in the “Finale,” this symphony is often seen as a turning point in the genre’s history, foreshadowing the cyclical form. After the Fifth, however, this motif—once almost atavistic in Beethoven’s music—never appeared in another of his works. As Henri Chantavoine so aptly put it in his essay on this musical Titan’s symphonies, it had “fulfilled its destiny.” Beethoven’s statement about the famous opening theme of the Fifth symphony is often called into question by those who would see this symphonic masterwork as a model of pure music. In the wake of Hoffmann’s famous review (see inset), the Symphony No.5 became for many the quintessence of so-called “absolute” music, by which was meant purely instrumental, self-contained, music absent of all references to words and images.
Symphony No.6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op. 68
Such music would allow the worthy listener to achieve contact with a feeling of the infinite, the immeasurable—a “reality” deemed superior because it was beyond that which the definite character of words and images could express. Diametrically opposed to this viewpoint was the tenet that truly absolute music could only be found in the program symphony, the symphonic poem, or Wagnerian music drama, because these genres united words and images with symphonic music’s ability to intensify and transcend them, creating a whole greater than the sum of the parts. For proponents of this view, the ultimate example was none other than the Fifth’s “contrasting twin” — the Symphony No.6.
Beethoven himself had subtitled the piece “Pastoral” and given highly suggestive titles to each movement, even adding that the whole was meant to evoke the “impressions of man appreciating the countryside.”
In the Sixth, Beethoven abandons the usual four movements in favour of a five-movement form, the first of which, entitled “Joyous feelings awakened upon arrival in the countryside,” is based on a theme that was likely derived from a popular Bohemian tune well-known at the time.
In the second movement, “Scene by the brook,” the motif sketched in 1803 has been developed into a “perpetual motion” theme, over which the woodwinds play a concert of bird calls that Beethoven actually names in the score: nightingale on the flute, cuckoo on the clarinet, and quail on the oboe.
The third movement is a “Merry gathering of country folk.” Viennese music lovers would have had no trouble recognizing the “national dance of the Austrian people, or at least a parody as only a B. could write,” recalls Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s confidants. He also added that “Beethoven asked me if I had ever noticed how the village musicians often fell asleep while playing, letting the sound of their instruments die away and then awakening with a start, heartily blowing or scraping a few notes at random, though generally in the right key, then soon falling asleep again — in the ‘Pastoral,’ he was trying to imitate these poor people.”
The fourth movement, “Storm. Tempest,” represents the mid-point of a nearly two-centuries-long tradition whose most famous examples are, pre-Beethoven, the storm from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (c. 1725) and, post-Beethoven, Richard Strauss’s Ein Alpensinfonie (1911–15).
Finally, the fifth movement, “Shepherd’s song: happy, thankful feelings after the storm,” begins by paraphrasing a tune popular in the Swiss Alps, “Ranz des vaches,” and ends with a lively song of rejoicing.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen
The Instrumental Music of Beethoven
Article written shortly after the publication in 1809 of the score of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5
Excerpts from the introduction
When we speak of music as an art unto itself, should we not always refer to instrumental music alone, which, disregarding every aid, every combination with another art (poetry), expresses with purity its own innate essence, recognizable only in this form? It is the most romantic of arts—one could almost say the only genuinely romantic art—for its sole subject is the infinite. The lyre of Orpheus (i.e., poetry) opened the gates to Hell; music, however, reveals an unknown realm to man, a world that has nothing to do with the surrounding sensory world, a world in which he abandons all definite feelings, surrendering himself to an indescribable longing. […]
Mozart and Haydn, composers of modern instrumental music, were the first to reveal to us this art in its full glory; but the one who looked upon it with a truly intense love and grasped it in the deepest parts of his being, that was Beethoven! And while the instrumental works of the three masters breathe with equally romantic spirits […], the character of their compositions are remarkably different. Haydn’s works are dominated by the expression of the serene soul of a child. […] Mozart leads us into the chasms of the spirit realm. […] And as for Beethoven’s instrumental music, it reveals to us the realm of the extraordinary and the immeasurable. […] The music of Beethoven resonates all the springs of passion, stimulating in us that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism. […]And which Beethoven work is the supreme confirmation of all this? None other than the magnificent (beyond all proportion), the profound Symphony in C minor! How this stupendous composition irresistibly leads the listener up an ever rising slope into the realm of the infinite spirit! […]