Love for countryside binds together Beethoven masterworks

Evan Mitchell is the music director of the Kingston Symphony. Tim Forbes photography

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Now past the halfway point in our journey through Beethoven’s nine symphonies, it’s a logical time to reflect on what we’ve experienced and what is yet to come. Beethoven himself would have had no knowledge of exactly how many symphonies he would come to write, but after having profoundly changed the symphonic world twice in less than a decade with his third and fifth symphonies, he must have certainly pondered, “What’s next?”

In art, you always align towards what you love, and in Beethoven’s case, he had no greater adoration than for the countryside. Even in his lowest moments, coming to grips with his deafness and finding resolve to continue onward in writing his heartrending Heiligenstadt testament where he confessed his deep sorrow to his brothers, he invoked the beauty of a birdcall along the plains.

And so we at the Kingston Symphony are pairing his Sixth “Pastoral” Symphony, a love letter to the outdoors, with Stravinsky’s titanic Rite of Spring. Where Beethoven cherishes the beauty in nature, the Rite reacts in fearful, reverent awe of its brute force, its remarkable and casual indifference. Even though the Rite was written in 1913, it remained the most important piece of the 20th century. To date, in my opinion, no piece has dethroned the Rite for its perfect understanding of rhythm and modern harmony, and its depiction of sheer unstoppable and relentless energy is unparalleled. Using the backdrop of a tribe selecting a sacrificial virgin as an offering for a successful harvest, we silently observe all the ritual of gathering, selection, celebration, and ultimately, willing sacrifice as the “glorified chosen one” dances herself to death for the good of the many. The Rite is savage, serene, overpowering and quietly intimate in equal measures, truly one of the great masterpieces. Its musical forward-thinking, coupled with a very provocative choreography, incited a riot in the audience during its Parisian premiere. Very few critics seemed to even understand what they had just heard. Even its conductor, the legendary Pierre Monteux, stated that he “had never before conducted some of the time signatures present in the piece. It was a surprise to all.” And yet the Rite eventually came to be hailed as a revolutionary work of the highest calibre. It sounds as novel and contemporary today as it did more than 100years ago.

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony chooses a different path, one that avoids such a tectonic shift. I suppose that’s unsurprising, given the monumental effect the Fifth Symphony had on the state of music. Beethoven professes his deepest adoration for the great outdoors using simple, perfectly concocted folky melodies and gentle orchestrational support. In a surprisingly programmatic fashion, he chooses to give a specific extra-musical connotation to each of the movements. In the opening movement, “Cheerful feelings of the countryside,” we encounter sweet, singing melodies infused with optimism. In the “Scene by the brook,” we have the gentle flow of the water etched into every bar of the music, alongside some delightful birdcalls courtesy of the winds, happening near the end of the movement. The “Merry gathering of the countryfolk” depicts a small village’s happy celebration, complete with an amateur musical ensemble tripping on the rhythm. And the final two movements represent a short, powerful thunderstorm and then a shepherd’s call, easing us into the finale, which tenderly expresses the communal sense of thanks after a rainfall.

These two masterworks couldn’t be further apart in execution, but are bound together by a mutually deep love with the natural world. Together they will certainly make for a wondrous afternoon of music!

Evan Mitchell is music director of the Kingston Symphony.