Beethoven’s summer storm

You really can’t live in Minnesota without accepting the ever-changing seasons — those folks complaining about the weather are wasting your time. If you don’t like it just wait ’til tomorrow. Spring is welcomed and just as soon gone, replaced by those over-hot afternoons and dry, dormant lawns. Summer in its August glory gives way all too quickly to the cool evenings of September. Soon enough you’re huddled inside, sipping Cider and watching the neighbor across the street shovel his walk.

My own feelings for the seasons seem delayed. Never do we long to walk in a snowstorm more than the second week of May, and at no other time of the year would we more enjoy chasing the ice cream man with the kids than right around Thanksgiving. And right about now? We’re thinking about summer storms.

You’re in the garden, doing a mid-summer chore like weeding (you haven’t given up yet) and there’s a sudden quickening of the breeze. You can hear it in the trees. Soon you can feel an energy in the air as the sky gets darker. It even smells different. And then a few drops, a few more, and then its storming so wildly you scarcely have time to gather your tools and close the shed door before you’re soaked. Or maybe you’re in bed and the rustling of the leaves wakes you. You look out in time to see branches bending, a flash of light and a sudden sheet of rain filling everything out your window.

Songs about the rain offer so many different things — it is one of the most varied ‘themed’ playlists you could create out of any record collection. From ELO’s bombastic “Concerto for a Rainy Day” (side three of Out of the Blue, which happily concludes with “Mr. Blue Sky”) to Pinhead Gunpowder’s “Mpls Song” (posted some time ago¬†here), there is an incredible range. John Coltrane’s evocative “After the Rain” (on Impressions) has always been a favorite of ours, as has Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.” Surely you have favorites, too.

None capture the majestic spectacle of a summer storm — how could something so majestic hold the same power over a single sense? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know where we turn at times like this…

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A couple years ago we featured a post called “Too Much” (here) about artists who released multiple albums on a single day, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and, of course, KISS — All of them are entirely surpassed by a single concert on December 22nd, 1808, when Ludwig van Beethoven debuted his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.

Many things distinguish Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in F Major, although its premier was a disaster. It is one of only two given a title by its composer (The Pastoral Symphony) and it is a rare example of explicitly programmatic composition in his oeuvre. Another unique quality is that it is presented in five movements, the final three of which are a seamless program (the tracks run into one another, you know, like in The Wall).

The first movement’s richly developed theme is one of the most memorable in all of classical music, setting the scene for the countryside which the composer often visited while working in Vienna. In the second movement, set around a brook, Beethoven uses woodwinds to represent bird calls, much in the way the French composer and amateur ornithologist Oliver Messiaen would (he was recently featured here on the Hymie’s blog). Beethoven even identifies the birds in his score: the flute representing a nightingale, the clarinet a cuckoo and the oboe a quail.

61F8eVJ3nSL._SX300_The third, fourth and fifth movements are, as mentioned before, a continuous program. All three are in the symphony’s main key of F major. The third is often the subject depicted on album covers, such as this early 60s (date anyone?) recording by George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Beethoven titled it “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (Merry gathering of country folk) — It is the symphony’s scherzo, or it’s light-hearted and fun passage, depicting a dance in the countryside. It grows and grows until a sudden interruption.

In one of the most sublime moments in all music, Beethoven interrupts the gathering with a summer storm. First a few drops from the strings, then with a striking intensity (especially from the double basses) comes the rain. It sounds as though the celebrants struggle to gather themselves and their things before they’re soaked, only to be inundated by the crashing thunder (tympani providing the only percussion) and waves of windy rain.

(This track includes the coming of the storm, the storm, and its aftermath — the end of the third movement, the entire fourth, and the entire fifth — from an exceptional early 60s recording by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell)

And in a stunning three and a half minutes it is passed, giving way to the Allegreto finale, the “Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm,” as described by Beethoven. The passage transforms the Sixth from a mere portrayal of pastoral life to an episode within it.

Other composers have created storms — Haydn ended his Symphony no. 8 in a similar fashion and Vivaldi naturally included one in his Four Seasons — But Beethoven’s cloudburst is the closest thing on record to the real thing.

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