Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Symphony Preview: Nurturing nature with the St. Louis Symphony November 11-13, 2015

Beethoven, naturally
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Quick question: without looking out of a window or using Google, do you know what phase the moon is in tonight? If the answer is "no," don't feel bad; thanks to the ubiquity of electric light, most of us have lost our connection to the moon and stars. Indeed, a nearly complete disconnect from the natural world is both the blessing and the curse of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Back when most of the music we now call "classical" was written, though, nature was much more a part of everyday life. So it's hardly surprising that many of the great composers drew inspiration from the natural world.

This weekend, David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony will offer two prime examples of that inspiration, beginning with Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68" ("Pastoral"). With its five movements depicting, sometimes with surprising realism, scenes of country life, the symphony is filled with the joy Beethoven experienced wandering through the woods around Vienna. "How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks," he once wrote in a letter. "No one can love the country as I bad hearing does not trouble me here. In the country every tree seems to speak to me, saying ‘Holy! Holy!’ In the woods there is enchantment which expresses all things."

It's common to think of the 6th as a kind of gentler respite from the more dynamic "Symphony No. 5", but the fact is that Beethoven worked on both of them simultaneously and even premiered them together in Vienna on December 22, 1808 in a four-hour concert that included the "Piano Concerto No. 4" and the "Choral Fantasy". Writing in The Guardian, Tom Service suggests that, in fact, the 6th is the far more radical of the two symphonies, creating "a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony."

Richard Strauss at age 74, photographed in his garden
at his country home at Garmisch-Partenkirchen,
Germany, in 1938
And, let's face it, he has a point. Parts of the symphony are almost minimalist in their simplicity while others, like the fourth movement's thunderstorm, have a cinematic vividness. It's music that is both abstract and descriptive. Beethoven even provided descriptive titles for each movement, but then hedged his bets by describing it as "more the expression of feeling than painting." "Regardless of Beethoven's declared intentions," wrote Christopher H. Gibbs for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006, "this music seems to function on both descriptive and expressive levels, therein fueling arguments about the issue ever since his time."

Nature imagery also pervades the other big work on the program this week, Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs," written when the composer was 84 and contemplating his mortality. With texts by Hermann Hesse and the 19th-century poet Joseph von Eichendorff, the songs all deal with death in one way or another, but they do so in a way that is ultimately very life affirming. That's most obvious in the first song, "Frühling " ("Spring"), with its images of new life springing from a dream of "dämmrigen Grüften" ("shadowy crypts"), but there's a sense throughout the piece that death is not to be feared, but to be accepted and even embraced.

"O weiter, stiller Friede! / So tief im Abendrot. / Wie sind wir wandermüde-- / Ist dies etwa der Tod?" So run the final lines of the last song, "Im Abendrot" ("At sunset"). There are many translations out there, but I like this one by Robin Wallace: "What broad and silent peacefulness / In evening’s final breath. / How tired we are of wandering. / Might this perhaps be death?" Strauss includes a quote from his own youthful tone poem "Death and Transfiguration" under that last line. The quote is the "transfiguration" theme, suggesting that death is by no means the end, and might actually be the start of another journey.

Death is also lurking in the background of Anton Webern's "Six Pieces for Orchestra," Op. 6, which begins the second half of this weekend's concerts. Written in 1909 after the death of the composer's mother, this remarkably concise suite (it runs around thirteen minutes) consists of five very short movements (a minute or so each), flanking a funeral march that's as long as all the other movements put together. As a result, that fourth movement—marked Langsam ("slow") (marcia funebre)—packs a much stronger emotional punch than it would have as part of a longer and more expansive work.

Anton Webern in Stettin, October 1912
Essentially, Webern's suite takes all of the overheated yearning of late nineteenth century music and triple-distills it into the aural equivalent of Everclear. "What Mahler writes with an eternal melody," observes Zubin Mehta in a 2013 interview for the Arte television network, "Webern writes with three or four notes." It's both a reaction to and a reflection of the great orchestral edifices erected by Mahler and Strauss.

Webern's death is an especially poignant one, by the way. On September 15, 1945, the composer was living in Mittersill, Austria, which was under Allied occupation. "Webern was going outside to smoke a cigar while a sting operation was being carried out to arrest his son-in-law Benno Mattel, a former SS-member and black market operative," writes blogger Michael Stein. "Raymond Norwood Bell, company cook from North Carolina, was one of the soldiers participating in the action. Hearing some noises outside the room they were holding Mattel in, Bell went to investigate and apparently bumped into the composer and fired three shots. Bell later stated that he had been attacked. Ten years after the incident Bell died of acute alcoholism attributed to the guilt he felt over what had happened."

Webern's last words were, "it's over."

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with soprano Christine Goerke, on Friday and at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 13-15. The program features Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"), Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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