The Oslo Philharmonic rounds off its anniversary celebrations in the University Aula − one of the orchestra’s historic concert locations.
There is no opening of a symphony more recognisable and imposing than the terrifying “fate” motive which sets off Ludvig van Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5. Arvid Engegård and the Oslo Philharmonic conclude the orchestra’s hundredth birthday celebrations by marking Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, in a historic concert in the University Aula − one of both Oslo and the orchestra’s most important concert locations. When the gruesome fate is finally won over, the pastorale Symphony No. 6 transports us to country idyll and a fresh walk outdoors.
In just a quarter of a century, from 1799 to 1824, Ludvig van Beethoven (1770−1827) transformed the symphony from being sophisticated entertainment for the upper classes to being a powerful expression of existential themes. Beethoven brought up politics, literature, text and visual arts, but most important of all were the purely musical innovations he introduced. Beethoven challenged all classical conventions of harmony, melody, rhythm and sound. His harmonies became bolder and wilder, tonal connections more distant and more unpredictable, dynamic differences greater and more abrupt, rhythmical patterns more complex, orchestration and the sound more nuanced and varied, form vastly expanded and his development of themes much more intricate. Put together, all these innovations formed the basis of what in the 19th century developed into a cultivation of Beethoven as music’s great patriarch and the great ideal of every composer. Since then, Beethoven’s works in general, especially his symphonies, have lived on to form the very core of the classical repertoire of the Western world.
Apart from his ninth, his fifth symphony is Beethoven’s best-known composition, especially due to the “knocking” motive which opens the work and which runs like a thread throughout the symphony. Fate comes knocking on the door, Beethoven is believed to have said, but whether or not this is true is open to question. His overzealous student, Anton Schindler, may not have been an entirely reliable narrator, but in any case, this work will always remain known as the “Fate” Symphony. Many interpret the music as a battle against, and a final victory over, a gruesome fate. Beethoven himself had good reason to sense the weighty knocking of fate. Just a few years before he composed the work, in 1805−1807, he had realised that he was on the brink of losing his most important instrument: his ability to hear. He paired his gradually disappearing hearing with a correlating acceleration of power and freedom in the expression and form of his music. His “Eroica” symphony (No. 3) and his “Fate” Symphony (No. 5) are just two of the many groundbreaking works he created during this period of crisis. The clarity of classicism was in the process of being replaced by something revolutionary − Romanticism.
It is namely the opening motive which represents the central musical idea in the symphony, and which knocks itself into the consciousness of most listeners, but the work has many other original ideas. The variations in the second movement are a strange mixture of a sweet cantilena and strict military music, and the third movement is both mystical and at the same time full of Beethoven’s wry humour. The last movement brings us towards the great symphonic triumph, and what the critic E.T.A Hoffman referred to as “the spiritual sphere of infinity”.
There is a great contrast in expression between the fifth and the sixth symphonies. For the first time, Beethoven made a direct reference to ideas beyond music, and images in a symphony, thereby laying the foundation for programme music. In the sixth symphony’s first movement, he describes the happy feelings one might experience as one arrives in the countryside, inhaling the idyll, indulging in fresh air and enjoying a freedom from worry. Harmonically, the movement is an expression of the way in which Beethoven perceived the clean and simple life in the countryside, but the development of theme and motive here is as advanced and inventive as ever.
The second movement is even more concrete, and describes a scene by a brook. We can easily picture the water trickling and floating away when we hear this music, and at the end we can even hear the birds twittering in Beethoven’s orchestra as the woodwinds imitate the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The third movement, the scherzo, evokes the inhabitants of the town engaging in dancing and festivities, no one suspecting the great tempest looming on the horizon. The fourth movement demonstrates Beethoven’s talent for tone painting when he gives musical form to a storm. It starts with just a few drops of rain in the strings, before it builds up to a violent climax, with crashing thunder, howling winds, and bolts of lightning. After a while, the storm blows over, and the idyll returns with the shepherd song in the last movement, typically enough in a 6/8 metre, and triad based melodies.
Beethoven’s sixth symphony was performed for the first time in Vienna in 1806, at an extraordinarily long concert, where also the fifth symphony was played for the first time. The latter is admittedly now the most famous of the two, but the sixth symphony has also long-since been acknowledged as a masterpiece — not only for its original ideas, but also for its many remarkable musical details.
Beethoven remains one of the very greatest composers who ever lived, and so he was when the Oslo Philharmonic was founded in 1919. The audience in the period between the wars even had the opportunity to hear the “Fate” Symphony in their own city. Symphony No. 5 was performed twice in the orchestra’s first season, and as many as twenty-two times in the first decade of the orchestra’s existence. The sixth symphony was not performed as often and audiences were obliged to wait until the orchestra’s second season before they had the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s tribute to nature and country idyll. Nevertheless, the “Pastorale” symphony was well represented on the Oslo Philharmonic’s programme in the early years.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)Read more
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