Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gentle airs and murmuring brooks

Beethoven wrote his Pastoral Symphony in 1807-8, but as Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner writes on the Classical Music Pages, 'this was certainly not the first time that nature found its way into concert music. Baroque composers were fond of hunting scenes and bird calls. Leopold Mozart produced a bit of fluff called A Musical Sleighride, complete with barking dogs, and Haydn's The Seasons, which dates from 1801, is filled with scenes from country life. Although these examples are familiar, one probable influence on Beethoven is often overlooked. In 1784, the publisher Bossler issued a set of piano trios by Beethoven. He advertised the works in the newspaper, and, on the same page, listed another composition, also published by Bossler, a five-movement symphony by the now-forgotten Justin Heinrich Knecht, a work entitled A Musical Portrait of Nature. Each movement of that symphony carried a descriptive title, remarkably similar to those used a dozen years later by Beethoven, who also made the same unusual choice of five movements. Beethoven almost certainly knew of this precedent for his own symphony and for his titles, but, since the secret to successful plagiarism is to be better known than your source, Beethoven was never questioned.'

Beethoven's five movements were (in English translation):

(1) Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
(2) Scene by the brook
(3) Happy gathering of country folk
(4) Thunderstorm; Storm
(5) Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

An article on the Bach Cantatas site, explains that the earlier Knecht composition, Le Portrait Musical de la Nature, was 'a grand symphony for two violins, viola and bass, two flutes, two oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums ad lib., in which is expressed:

(1) A beautiful country, the sun shining, gentle airs and murmuring brooks; birds twitter, a waterfall tumbles from the mountain, the shepherd plays his pipe, the shepherdess sings, and the lambs gambol around.
(2) Suddenly the sky darkens, an oppressive closeness pervades the air, black clouds gather, the wind rises, distant thunder Is heard, and the storm approaches.
(3) The tempest bursts in all Its fury, the wind howls and the rain beats, the trees .groan and the streams rush furiously.
(4) The storm gradually goes off, the clouds disperse and the sky clears.
(5) Nature raises its joyful voice to heaven in songs of gratitude to the Creator (a hymn with variations).'

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