Beethoven & Sanctuary programme notes

Chase away your winter blues and find a little serenity with soaring female voices and a ‘strolling’ symphony!

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Series 5 – Beethoven & Sanctuary

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Op. 68
The Sixth or “Pastorale” Symphony, the most relaxed and consistently sunny of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, was first sketched out in the spring of 1808 and completed later that summer at Heiligenstadt just outside of Vienna. Beethoven had first used the little village as a summer retreat in 1802, when he hoped that rest in the countryside would help reverse his worsening hearing.

Unfortunately by the end of his stay he knew there was no cure. He expressed his despair over his condition and his resolve to overcome this personal tragedy through his music in the Heiligenstadt Testament, a will he drew up before returning to Vienna and which was only found among his personal papers after his death. He continued to spend his summers in Heiligenstadt, however, for it was here in a rented cottage with a view across the surrounding fields to the Danube and the distant western Carpathian mountains that he could find the necessary seclusion and peace for concentrated work.

The Pastorale Symphony was premiered on December 22, 1808 at a disastrous concert in the Theater an der Wien. The program was immense, and also included the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C and the Choral Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra. The hall was unheated, the audience began leaving halfway through the performance and the orchestra got lost in the Choral Fantasia, whereupon Beethoven yelled at them, “Wrong, badly played! Wrong – again!” Despite such an inauspicious premiere all of the works on the program quickly earned a favoured place in the concert repertoire.

By Beethoven’s time, there already existed a sizeable body of music describing country life. The pictorial naïveté of some of these contemporary descriptions had been so sharply criticised, though, that Beethoven took pains to indicate in his manuscript that his Pastoral Symphony was “an expression of feeling rather than painting”. He further emphasised this point in his title to the first movement “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country”. Here the music unfolds with the leisurely pace of a pleasant carriage journey along the fields, the passing countryside greeted with joy by the returning traveller, while the flutes suggest the ecstatic cries of welcoming birds overhead.

A similar atmosphere of contentment hangs over the second movement, “Scene by the Brook” with its murmuring waters and gently rustling leaves. At its end birdcalls again appear in the music, identified by Beethoven in his manuscript as those of the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The third movement, “Merry gathering of the country folk”, depicts a lively get-together of the country folk, which is interrupted by a sudden summer squall, complete with chromatic gusts of wind, crashing thunder and exhilarating flashes of lightning. The sun returns, though, heralded by a distant shepherd’s pipe, to which all creation joins in with a hymn of thanksgiving – one of the most uplifting and glowing endings in Beethoven’s music.

Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) – Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary
Welsh composer Karl Jenkins has gained an international reputation recently, above all for his choral works. The piece that sparked this interest in his music is Adiemus from 1995, which will be heard on this concert. Jenkins’ training in music began with piano at the age of five and then progressed to the oboe and finally the saxophone, due to his growing interest in jazz.

His formal music studies began at Cardiff University, then a further post-graduate year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1968, he began working as a rock band musician, culminating in his joining the British progressive Soft Machine in 1972, with which he recorded six albums and appeared in numerous concerts until their breakup in 1981, playing both oboe and saxophone. He then teamed up with the group’s keyboardist, Mike Ratledge, to produce music for short films, theatre and advertising.

In fact, Adiemus originated in music for a 1994 Delta Air Lines commercial. The piece’s opening – the soprano solo with string accompaniment followed by the chorus – originally accompanied jetliners in synchronised flight alternating with the swimming and leaping of dolphins. From this unusual beginning Jenkins worked out a further eight choral / orchestral movements.

Jenkins’ successful formula in this work is the fusion of classical new-age tinged music with world music. Some movements suggest imitations of specific classical styles, as in the Baroque-like lament of the fourth movement, Cantus insolitus (unaccustomed song), or the angst-driven early twentieth century style in the introduction to the second movement Tintinnabulum. But this movement then turns to a clearly African-based choral song with expanded percussion accompaniment, while the movement’s final soprano solo against the choir suggests in particular the style of the great South-African singer Miriam Makeba.

This colouring of African music pervades the whole work, from the choral singing of the opening movement Adiemus, to the eighth movement Kayama, which also mixes in a lush classical string sound. The general world music influence is further evident in the invented language Jenkins uses for the texts as well as his expanded percussion section. The use of an invented language was, according to the composer, designed to “remove the distraction… of words.” The vocal sound thus becomes instrumental and universal.

Dr Brian Black