Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall: Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

»Excitingly different« – the legendary conductor and his Early Music ensemble in the Laeiszhalle.

Savall's concerts in the Laeiszhalle in October 2021: »Time after time one could enjoy with surprise all kinds of details of the score that are otherwise never heard.« What better way to celebrate Beethoven's birthday? In three concerts spread over two evenings, the Catalan conductor and his chamber orchestra Le Concert des Nations turned their attention to the famous composer's symphonies. Their performance of Beethoven's Sixth is now available as a concert stream.

Savall explained that he wanted to »restore the energy to the Beethoven symphonies, which are so well-known and are too often heard in cluttered interpretations« – a task that no-one is better suited to than this meticulous music scholar with his chamber orchestra specialising in Early Music. Incidentally, we can also congratulate Jordi Savall himself: he celebrated his 80th birthday in August 2021.

Jordi Savall conducts Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in the Laeiszhalle.

Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
Le Concert des Nations Le Concert des Nations © Daniel Dittus
None © Daniel Dittus
Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus
Jordi Savall Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus


Le Concert des Nations

conductor Jordi Savall


Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 »Pastoral Symphony«

The artists

Jordi Savall – conductor

Le Concert des Nations

Le Concert des Nations
Le Concert des Nations © Toni Peñarroya

COWS IN THE BASSOON PART :About Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 »Pastoral«

»Pastoral symphony, or: Memories of rural life. More an expression of feeling than painting.« This is the full title that Beethoven gave to his Sixth Symphony, and he attached the utmost importance to its being printed without omission on the cover of the score. He seems to have anticipated what thin ice he was treading on with such a specific title, which he immediately qualified with the explanation that followed. Essentially, the composer saw himself confronted with a central question of aesthetics that continued to cause heated debates long after his death. The question is this: should music always stand alone as an abstract work of art and an end in itself? Or should it express something concrete – a feeling, a piece of scenery or the plot of a novel?

Observations of nature

It's already clear from the headings of the individual movements that Beethoven had very specific pictures in mind when he was writing the symphony. Instead of the customary Italian tempo markings, we read of a »Scene by the brook«, of a »Merry gathering of country folk«, a »Thunderstorm« and a »Shepherd's song«. Moreover, all these things can actually be heard in the music. Thus the second movement opens with the quiet murmur of a spring that gradually evolves into a babbling brook – an early blueprint for Smetana's »Moldau«. Claude Debussy later bitched that the bassoons were probably meant to represent the cows drinking from the brook. Towards the end of the movement, Beethoven even imitates the calls of the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe) and the cuckoo (clarinet) – all ornithologically correct.

Beethoven in der Natur (Gemälde von Julius Schmid)

No less graphically depicted are the earthy barn dances of the country folk. After the starting the scene with blaring horns, Beethoven includes a typical inside joke: the oboe comes in with its dance tune a beat too early, thus simulating an amateur village musician.

But all of a sudden the blithe dance music breaks off abruptly as a thunderstorm gathers. Trouble can be heard brewing in the tremolo on the strings, lightning flashes and the timpani send thunderclaps rolling through the concert hall. From a meteorological point of view, Beethoven is way ahead of Vivaldi's »Four Seasons«, and Wagner's »Flying Dutchman« is not far off. But at the end of the movement the elements calm down, and the fifth and final movement opens with the song of a relieved shepherd.

Beethoven in the nature

Beethoven himself was a great nature lover. In those days there must have been an infernal amount of noise in the city from building work, horses' hooves and market criers plying their wares, and the composer was only too happy to escape to the peace of the countryside outside Vienna. »My motto is to just stay in the country,« he once jotted down. »My wretched hearing problem doesn't bother me here. What sweet silence prevails in the forest!« No wonder he felt the need to express his feelings and observations in his own medium, music.

Perhaps Beethoven overshot the mark a little with his need to share – like someone who overwhelms his friends with a huge stack of holiday snapshots. His attempt to qualify the titles of the movements later on does seem a bit bashful: »It is left to the listener to identify the different situations. Anyone who has gained an impression of rural life will be able to imagine the author's intentions without lots of headings.«

The key to this dilemma might lie in the symphony's first movement. The title »Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside« shows that the music doesn't depict the sounds of nature, but a human emotion. The music could also be described as generally positive in tone without any reference to rural life. So you can decide for yourself whether you want to hear Beethoven's musical holiday pictures as such, or as a reflection of your own memories and feelings.

Back to the original :Jordi Savall writes about the basic principles of his Beethoven cycle

The underlying idea at the centre of our Beethoven cycle is to rediscover the original organic sound of the orchestra that Beethoven himself had in mind. This led to a whole number of preliminary considerations that inspired our new interpretation – indeed, they were an essential condition for it.

»We studied and compared both Beethoven's manuscripts and the scores and individual parts used at the first performances.«

We needed to be familiar with the existing original manuscripts in order to check all the instructions on volume and articulation. One of the crucial decisions had to do with the tempi that Beethoven calls for. To ensure that his compositions were performed as he intended, he left extremely precise metronome indications – which, as he wrote, »are often ignored to my chagrin«. Despite these instructions in the composer's own handwriting, to this day many musicians and conductors are regrettably of the opinion that they are not practicable, or even regard them as anti-artistic.

The size of the orchestra

And this in turn influences the size of the orchestra. Like Beethoven, we use a total of between 55 and 60 musicians, depending on the symphony. About two-thirds of them are members of the orchestra Le Concert des Nations, with many of these having played with us since 1989. Roughly one-third are young musicians from all over Europe and other continents who have shown in a selection procedure that they are among the best of their generation.

A characteristic feature of the orchestra is the ratio of wind instruments to strings. A contemporary reviewer wrote of the first performance of Beethoven's First Symphony on 2 April 1800 that »too much use was made of the wind instruments«. From this the French musicologist and Beethoven biographer André Boucourechliev concluded in 1963: »The balance between the different groups of instruments is often ignored in today's interpretations. The hypertrophy of the string section is one of the most stubborn tendencies of the fashion for ›symphonism‹. Many conductors translate the expression ›symphony‹ as ›orchestra with 120 players‹. Beethoven's contemporary Ignaz Moscheles, on the other hand, reported that the composer feared ›confusion‹ above all, and did not want more than 60 or so players for his symphonies.« This new balance is essential for us. That's why we decided on a similar size of orchestra to the one that Beethoven had at his disposal: a wind section numbering 18 players and 32 strings.

Restoring the energy

The secret behind Beethoven's genius is expressed in the assurance of the creative act that shines out from his works. This energy, which surprised many of his successors, was never transferrable, as the creative act often took the form of a struggle in Beethoven's case. He often had to compete with himself in order to write music.

»Beethoven's work is the result of a creative process that testifies to a new concept of art.«

The paradox we face today was already described by the conductor and musicologist René Leibowitz 40 years ago. He reminds the reader of »the privileged place that Beethoven occupies in the world of music«, as is regularly confirmed to this day by opinion surveys and performance statistics. And continues: »It is tempting to deduce from this that audiences and musicians alike possess a deep awareness of the musical values that have found one of their highest expressions in Beethoven's work. However, we then arrive inevitably at the thought that there is something disturbing about Beethoven. There is possibly no other composer who has so continually been the victim of incorrect and incongruent traditions of interpretation. Traditions that go so far as to distort and hide the entire meaning of works – works that enjoy immense popularity. People seem to be worshipping something that they only know through distortions, and they systematically distort what they worship.«

Our research and the interpretation based on it take all these underlying questions into account – not for their own sake, but in order to achieve our primary aim. Our aim is to restore the energy to the Beethoven symphonies, which are so well-known, and are performed much too often in oversized and overloaded versions. The result of our efforts is a revolutionary brilliance, articulation, balance and tonal strength, and a dramaturgy borne by the spiritual power of its own message. This revolutionary power produces a permanent state of alertness in the creative mind, in which the youthfulness of these works is never exhausted.

Text: Jordi Savall

translations: Clive Williams

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