“What a stupid book”, I said to myself. A trivial story about a romance between a priest, his son and a blind orphan. I hated André Gide’s novel “La Symphony Pastorale”! I had to study it a school and the moral questions the novel evokes on the base of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s philosophy totally escaped me. I was interested in astrophysics and spaceflight, not in moral dilemmas.
I would never touch that book again, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastorale” (Op. 68) that gave the novel its name almost suffered a similar fate. Scheduled, postponed, re-scheduled, saved as a draft – it took a heroic act to write this post even though I now realise that I had neglected a splendid piece of music for too long, mostly because the book triggered a strong antipathy towards anything related to it. Poor Beethoven, poor Gide!
Program or absolute music
Beethoven’s symphony amplified a discussion – or was it already a bitter, personal feud? – between advocates of program music (i.e. music depicting a specific idea) and their enemies, who emphasized the absolute character of music, void of any specific theme. Beethoven took great care to include a caveat in the score under the title “Pastorale”. He did not want to paint a view of the idyllic country life (“Malerey”), but rather to express through his music feelings similar to those triggered by the contemplation of different aspects of country life (“Ausdruck der Empfindungen”).
In this sense the music of the different movements with their specific themes (1. Pleasant, joyful feelings on the arrival in the countryside 2. Besides a stream 3. Jolly get-together of country folks 4. Thunderstorm 5. Song of the shepherds) does not try to “show” what the countryside looks like. It does not say whether the stream is quick and lively like in Schubert’s song “Die Forelle” or a slowly flowing river nor does it mimic peasants’ dances as you can hear them in Smetlana’s “Vltava” and the finale has nothing in common with a shepherd’s song. The remembrance of emotions is at the center of the symphony and Beethoven expects the listener to feel through his music what he has already experienced in the past when he actually arrived at the countryside or witnessed a violent storm.
Did Gertrude get it all wrong?
The interesting point her is that Gide’s main character, the blind Gertrude, attends a concert with the priest and later, after having heard Beethoven’s symphony, Gertrude “was still silent and as if in ecstasy. ‘Is what you see really as beautiful as that?’ she said at last. ‘As beautiful as what, my dear?’ – ‘As that scene beside a brook.’ I did not reply at once, for I reflected that these ineffable harmonies depicted, not the world as it was but as it might have been but for evil and sin. And never had I dared to speak to Gertrude of evil, of sin, of death.”
Did Gertrude succumb to the illusion that Beethoven did want to show her what the scenery at the stream looks like? For she could not possibly remember such a scene as she had never seen one and thus never had been able to associate any feelings with her visual impression. However she might have had associated other sensory impressions with a walk along a stream – the fragrances and sounds in the air or the spray of water on her skin. Beethoven certainly had the sum of all possible sensations in his mind, as for Gertrude, I will probably have to re-read the novel!
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 has been recorded by the West Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
© Charles Thibo