4 Jun 2020

Pastoral symphonies: nature, the antichrist and the divine

From Upbeat, 12:00 pm on 4 June 2020

As the world celebrates Beethoven Pastoral Day on 5th June, we take a meander through some other pastoral music.

“The best actors in the world, either for
tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
(Shakespeare: Hamlet II.ii)

'Pastoral', as reflected in the quote above, is not unique to music among the arts.

Pastoral as a title isn’t even unique among Beethoven’s works: it’s also the name of the Piano Sonata No 15 in D Op 28. In all likelihood the title wasn't Beethoven's own, but given by his publisher.

Of course, within the field of music (pun intended!) when we think of ‘pastoral’, it’s unlikely to be that piano sonata that immediately springs to mind. That place is reserved for the magnificent 6th Symphony.

Another significant symphony with the title ‘Pastoral’ is by Ralph Vaughan Williams. His Third Symphony tends to evoke the rolling hills and dales of England, and is thought of as being a significant part of the tradition of pastoral-themed and folk-song inspired music in the UK at the time. Vaughan Williams' overall style was criticised by fellow composer Peter Warlock as sounding “like a cow peering over a farm gate”, but even Warlock was impressed by this work, describing it as "the best English orchestral work of this century". Vaughan Williams later claimed that the landscape he had in mind was not England’s but that of France during his time in the medical corps in the Great War.

Throughout history, nature has been a powerful source of musical inspiration. One of the oldest known songs is to do with the natural world: ‘Sumer is icumen in’. This 13th century piece has the distinction of being the first to mention the – um – “methane emissions”, shall we say, of certain animals; and it’s thought that underneath the surface meaning of the text may lie another slightly more ribald interpretation where “cuckoo” means “cuckold”…

Pastoral subjects were taken up with great enthusiasm in the 17th and 18th centuries. Composers delighted in showing off their skill in imitating the sounds of nature. Birds were a frequent favourite, and many opera arias tell of lamenting turtle doves and so on. Handel (who wrote his fair share of such arias) also wrote a sophisticated instrumental work copying birdsong: the organ concerto known as 'The Cuckoo and the Nightingale' because of his twittering imitation of these birds.

During the Baroque era, the lives and loves of shepherds and shepherdesses were told in countless cantatas. The idea of an Arcadian paradise was highly popular, tying in with a love of Classical Greek and Roman culture at the time. In the French court, the aristocracy even resorted to play acting, dressing up as shepherds and shepherdesses – perhaps dreaming of a simpler world than their everyday life of court intrigues and political manoeuvres.

Early on, the pastoral became associated with the divine. The 'shepherds abiding in their fields' at the time of the angelic proclamation of Christ's birth inspired much music – instrumental as well as liturgical and devotional vocal pieces. Christmas concertos and pastoral sinfonias abounded, with the 'pastorale' intended to be a stylised version of shepherds playing rustic instruments such as musettes (a kind of bagpipe). The most famous of these are the Pifa or Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s ‘Messiah’, the sinfonia in the second part of Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio', and Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’. Just about every Italian composer worth his salt wrote at least one such concerto:

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ is distantly related to the tradition of the pastoral containing elements of the divine. The last movement of the Sixth is titled 'Shepherd's song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm', and in Beethoven’s own note on the piece: 'salutary feelings combined with thanks to the Deity'. (Beethoven tended to favour descriptions such as 'the Deity' or 'the Godhead' rather than using more specifically Christian doctrinal terms.)

For the German Romantics especially, natural phenomena were of huge importance. Raging torrents, icy mountains, the raw power of nature. As time went by, even the Deist stance of nature evidencing the existence of a Creator had given way to nature itself becoming the object of devotion. Take the late Romantic Richard Strauss’s  ‘An Alpine Symphony’ – it depicts a day on the alps, complete with a storm, and an awe-filled emotional response to that setting. Nothing unusual there. But it may come as a surprise to learn that Strauss’s original intention was to name the work 'The Antichrist'. Not the Antichrist of the Bible and the 'number of the beast' so beloved of the horror genre, but 'Anti- Christ' after the book by Nietzsche – a rejection of Christian doctrine: 'moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature'.

And so we come to New Zealand. The arts in this country have often been described as an inevitable response to the landscape. It was certainly a dominant concern in the works of those painters we now see as foundational in creating a national artistic identity: Rita Angus and Colin McCahon among them. And for McCahon especially, landscape was intertwined with matters of faith. The composer Douglas Lilburn, of a similar nation-building stature in music to McCahon in painting, also produced work that goes well beyond a mere map of local scenery; instead, it in some way becomes a cartography of the New Zealand soul.

One of Lilburn’s great concerns was to develop a truly New Zealand music: “letting our music grow out of the land beneath our feet”. Lilburn’s earlier orchestral works give that sense of a connectedness to the landscape, even with a strong debt to the English pastoral tradition of his teacher Vaughan Williams.

In his later electroacoustic works, though, Lilburn eschewed 'imported' musical means and utilised environmental sounds themselves as the raw source material of his music. His 1965 work ‘The Return’ is a bringing together of contemporary poetry in English, speech in te reo and the sounds of the New Zealand natural environment.

The love of the pastoral and the natural environment isn't confined to composers of the past - a new generation of young New Zealand musicians are reflecting the natural world in their music. And reminding us of the need to take care of it for future generations.