Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony: Nature’s Lament

British troops in the trenches near Thiepval, France in 1916.

 

With a title like A Pastoral Symphony, you might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, completed in 1922, to evoke bubbling brooks and the quiet hedgerows of England’s “green and pleasant land.” But listen, and you’ll hear music which, instead, suggests a melancholy alienation from nature. The music feels strangely hazy and shell-shocked. Its pastures are the battlefields of the First World War, not the bucolic scenes of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Schubert song.

At the age of 41, Vaughan Williams served in the war as an ambulance driver for the Royal Army Medical Corps. This was the moment when the world caught its first, real glimpse of weapons of mass destruction. New, dehumanizing technology included tanks, poison gas, flame throwers and primitive air power. Soldiers were reduced to “killing machines” as trench warfare and the concept of attrition wiped away any pretense of gallant heroism. Vaughan Williams described the Symphony’s genesis, saying,

It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.

A Pastoral Symphony can be heard as nature’s lament. It seems rooted in the magnificent permanence of nature and simultaneously human separation from nature. In the context of music history, it may represent one of the final attempts to connect with the Romantic pasture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Considering Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential technological growth, think about the ways in which music permanently changed in the second half of the twentieth century, with influences such as the automobile, the atomic bomb and the computer. Even Mahler’s nine symphonies gradually progressed from bird songs (in the First Symphony) towards dissonance (in the Ninth).

In some ways, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony shakes up our concept of symphonic form. Most symphonies develop through linear motion, leading to a climax. This music, built on modes, parallel harmony, and the pentatonic scale, floats into more static territory. Each of the Pastoral Symphony’s movements ends by trailing off, denying us a clear sense of resolution.

The first movement (Molto moderato) is a restless sonic landscape of constantly shifting Impressionistic color and harmony. As each event unfolds into the next, our sense of key and tonal center seems to continuously slip away. Everything feels elusive, as if we’re chasing shadows.

Consider the musical colors created as woodwind lines move in and out of the thickly layered string sound (2:58, for example). Also, listen for the oboe and English horn, which evoke the traditional sounds of the pasture.

Listen to the chord at 1:36 and notice the way it stops the music in its tracks. You’ll hear this ominous hint of darkness return throughout the movement, remaining inescapable and unresolved.

In the middle of the second movement, a trumpet cadenza suggests a battlefield bugle call. Vaughan Williams intended it to be played on a valveless, “natural” trumpet.

It’s the final movement which ultimately makes A Pastoral Symphony feel so unsettling. The human voice suddenly emerges at the opening of the movement in the form of the soprano’s wordless, pentatonic lament. As the movement progresses, the music seems to be reaching for a moment of transcendent resolution. But at 7:03, the bottom falls out and we’re again confronted with the soprano’s opening line, this time in the strings. At the end of the movement, we hear the Symphony’s first true moment of resolution. Then the tonal center begins to dissolve. The soprano’s lament returns, fading into eternity.

This performance, with the Hallé Orchestra and conductor Sir Mark Elder, is part of the brand new recording I featured last week:

1. Molto Moderato:

2. Lento moderato-Moderato maestoso:

3. Moderato pesante:

4. Lento:

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 2

Monday’s post featured the first movement of Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. This music, which helped plant the seeds of Romanticism, introduced shocking new sounds and an expansive, heroic form. Let’s continue and listen to the other three movements:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Marcia funebre. Adagio assai[/typography]

Beethoven’s second movement is a solemn funeral march. Paying attention to the rhythm, consider what aspects of the music suggest a dirge. Why do you think Beethoven chose to put this type of movement in the middle of the “Eroica”? Does the atmosphere remain the same throughout the movement or does the character of the music develop into something new? Can you hear the sounds of the funeral procession fading into the distance at the end?

From the opening of the movement you probably heard the basses creating the rhythmic foundation of the funeral march. Beethoven creates a ponderous, weighty feeling by marking the downbeats with the lowest instrument in the orchestra.

At 5:11 the music tip toes almost hesitantly into a new theme in C major from C minor. It quickly crescendos to a sudden heroic statement or proclamation in G major (5:40). Isn’t it amazing how this heroic music can emerge so quickly from the depths of despair and then evaporate (7:32)?

But Beethoven soon has a new surprise in store for us, perhaps the most significant so far. At 8:16, the second violins suddenly launch into the subject of a fugue. A fugue is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.” Like the development section of the“Eroica’s” first movement, the music gets increasingly worked up, almost seeming to transcend everything we’ve heard up to this point (10:04). As you were listening the first time through, you may have been shocked by what happens next. At 10:42 we think we are returning to the quiet, predictable opening…but listen to what happens…

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is music which changed the course of music history from Brahms and Wagner through Mahler and beyond. This collection of pitches still speaks to us today as powerfully as it did in 1804. In fact, we often turn to great music like the “Eroica” when we need to try to make sense of tragedy. The Boston Symphony played this movement when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced to concert goers at Symphony Hall in 1963.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Scherzo and Finale[/typography]

The word “Scherzo” translates as “joke.” What comes to mind as you listen to the opening of the Scherzo? Maybe it’s breathless anticipation? Do you feel like the lid is about to blow off and the music is set to explode, no longer able to contain its excitement?

The final movement begins at 6:16. Are you surprised by the music which follows the dramatic opening of the movement? It’s only a harmony line without melody…a seemingly insignificant fragment of music. But this is the seed from which the last movement blossoms. What follows is a set of variations which cover exciting and far reaching musical territory. Notice how many different ways this theme can be developed and the contrasting emotions which result. What is each variation saying?

Beethoven’s music conjures up a complex sea of emotions. We often overlook humor in Beethoven, but listen carefully to the passage starting around 15:30. We know that the end of the piece is just around the corner, but listen to the way Beethoven plays with our expectations. I’m not sure if the music beginning at 16:28 is funny or frightening or maybe a mixture of both. How does this music set up the coda? What emotions do you feel as you listen to the end of the piece?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Interesting Links[/typography]

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, you may want to go deeper with some analysis by Leonard Bernstein. Here  is Michael Tilson Thomas introducing the piece and then giving a performance with the London Symphony. Also, check out this episode of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score this link from NPR.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The “Eroica” Through Time[/typography]

Over time, interpretations have changed. This fun clip documents the opening chords of the first movement from the earliest recordings up to the present. You’ll hear a variety of tempos as well as tunings. Remarkably it seems fairly easy to guess the style of each performance, based on the opening chords (quite a time saver).

If you want to choose one contrasting performance, I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s performance with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This performance attempts to recreate the instruments of Beethoven’s time. You’ll notice that the tempos are significantly faster and the tuning is lower. Also notice the limited use of vibrato in the strings and the valveless trumpets and horns. Brass instruments at that time could play a limited set of pitches controlled by the lip:

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Keep listening to this powerful, revolutionary music. You’ll continue to hear new, exciting things. Share your thoughts in the thread below. If you have a favorite recording of the piece, let us know about it.

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 1

Beethoven's manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.
Beethoven’s manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.

Revolutionary, exhilarating, ferocious, heroic…these are all words which could describe Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. The “Eroica” stretches the elegant Classicism of Mozart and Haydn to its breaking point and plants the seeds of Romanticism. This is music of Revolution (the French and American) and the ideals of the common man.

The dawn of Romanticism brought profound changes. The stately private palace gave way to the public concert hall. Orchestras became bigger and louder. Symphonic structures expanded. The heroic struggles of man and the poetry of nature were elevated.

Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony, written in 1804, to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, betraying the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily crossed out the dedication on the title page and replaced it with a dedication to heroes (“Eroica”).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Allegro con brio[/typography]

Let’s start by listening to the first movement, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece begins with a surprise…two thunderous musical “hammer blows.” Pay attention to the underlying pulse as the music develops, growing like a living organism from these opening chords. Can you hear moments where a competing rhythmic groove fights against this established pulse? Do you hear anything which suggests conflict or struggle?

This movement is built on sonata form. You can learn more about this type of musical structure here. As the piece unfolds, pay attention to this overall structure as we move from the exposition (which gets repeated at 3:40) to the development (around 6:49) and back home to the recapitulation.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Few Details…[/typography]

Can you imagine how shocking those opening “hammer blow”chords would have been for the first audiences in 1805? Beethoven makes the orchestra growl with a ferocious intensity which had never before been heard. When I play orchestral music by Beethoven, I always get the sense that the classical orchestra is being pushed to its limits. The musical vision almost seems too big and powerful to be contained. Beethoven’s compositional style also reflected the monumentality of the work. His sketches suggest that he struggled relentlessly over each motive. The most minute detail separated the pedestrian from the sublime.

Now that you have an idea of the piece, let’s go back and listen again. From the beginning, you probably felt the music flowing in groups of three (3/4 time). Quickly, however this clear pulse becomes infected with a competing groove, first with jarring accents on the “wrong” beat (around 1:00), then with more overt “hammer blows” (3:00-3:32). The music always makes us feel a little off balance. Go back and listen to the exposition again, paying attention to this rhythmic conflict.

Towards the end of the exposition, the music tells us that something new is about to happen (3:26-3:40). Beethoven heightens our anticipation, but listen to what happens…We abruptly return to the beginning of the exposition. Classical symphonies commonly repeated the exposition, but Beethoven goes out of his way to make this transition as sudden and jarring as possible. Listen to what happens the second time we come to this musical “fork in the road” (6:42-7:09). This time we move further  away from “home” into completely new musical territory. This is the development, the mid section of sonata form where the motives (the DNA of the piece) go through all kinds of exciting and far reaching embellishments and transformations. Listen to the way the opening motive is obsessively repeated in different guises (and keys) throughout this section, simultaneously spinning off new, but related musical material. This is the most unstable part of the piece, where anything can happen. Can you hear the music getting increasingly wound up throughout this section as it searches for a distant and elusive goal?

Listen to the intense passage beginning around 8:44 one more time. This is the moment where the rhythmic conflict we heard in the exposition explodes with a new insistence and completely takes over. This passage ends with a shockingly dissonant chord at 9:26. This harsh new sound is something we might expect to hear in twentieth century music by Stravinsky. It’s the furthest you can get from the elegant, refined sound world of Mozart and Haydn.

Another innovative moment comes with the “false” horn entrance around 11:36. During the first performances, even Beethoven’s most devoted students assumed that this had to be a misprint in the score. It was just too weird. Listen to the way the horn emerges from the eerie tremolo in the strings. A few moments later, after a modulation, a new horn solo appears in the “right” key.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a symphony is the sense that the music is always going somewhere. It’s constantly developing, evolving and searching. From the opening chords on, one musical motive and phrase spins into the next in this unfolding process. Consider the musical “fork in the road” we heard at the end of the exposition. Listen to what happens when we come to this critical junction again in the recapitulation, after 15:04. For the first time the music suddenly seems lost…out of ideas…unsure which direction to take. The motion almost stops. Can you tell how the music finds its way again? Listen to the second violins for a clue.

In the climactic coda, listen to Beethoven’s use of the trumpets and horns and consider the heroic connotations of these instruments. Notice that the rhythmic conflict we’ve heard throughout the movement is there, right to the final notes (17:52).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Listen Again[/typography]

Now that we’ve focused on some of the details in the music, go back and listen again. Listen freely with an open mind. Have fun and enjoy the ride. You may hear completely new things in the music that you missed the first time. Share your own ideas in the thread below. What does this music mean to you? What emotional impact does it create? Be sure to come back Wednesday for Part 2, where we’ll explore the other three movements.