I have a problem: Beethoven 6 sucks

Pastoral Landscape

OK, I get this.

No one is infallible, except maybe God, and even He (or She) created Texas.  This is especially true of artists, whose work can have a wide fluctuation in quality.  The reasons for this can be wide-ranging: youth and immaturity, the need for a paycheck, censorship at the hands of the state, just plain bad luck, whatever.  William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of the English language, but he also wrote Cymbeline and King John.  Steven Spielberg can’t count as high as the number of Academy Awards he has won, but he is also responsible for the Jurassic Park sequel.  Frank Lloyd Wright designed many of the greatest buildings in the world, but he also designed the Sturgis House in Southern California, which looks like Noah’s Ark crash landed on a middle school.  So it is with Beethoven, perhaps the greatest composer ever.  Many critics quickly point to Wellington’s Victory as the low point of Beethoven’s musical output, but I vehemently disagree…no other work of Beethoven’s calls for musket fire, but that’s a post for another day.  I’m writing this because I want help from music lovers to help me understand one thing: why do I hate Beethoven 6 so much?

I’ve searched for any possible explanation as to why I dislike the piece.  Maybe Beethoven wasn’t really in tune with nature enough to express it musically?  The 14th and 15th piano sonatas say hello.  Maybe he was uncomfortable with F major?  Not if the 8th Symphony has anything to say about it.  Maybe he went through a tough stretch where he just wasn’t on his A game?  Um, it premiered at the same concert as the 5th Symphony.

I genuinely want to understand and love the Pastoral, but I just can’t right now.  I’m lukewarm on the first movement; it certainly conveys an atmosphere of being out on a gorgeous Spring day, but it doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere (maybe that’s the point).  I appreciate the raindrops music, but the fourth movement storm seems clunky.  The fifth movement is harmonically static in large chunks, and the shepherd song of joy sounds more tired than anything else.  I actually like the scherzo a lot, so I’ll leave that alone.  The second movement is the biggest problem of all, for me.  I feel like I could listen to an entire Mahler cycle in the time it takes the second movement to run its course.  If I were by a brook, I would probably take my time doing lots of stuff, too, but it’s too much.  I’ve performed the Pastoral twice, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to falling asleep during a concert…and I’ve played Don Pasquale.  I think I might have even fallen asleep on it during a conducting test in grad school, which would explain why I did so poorly (much better explanation than I just fucked up like a moron).

I’ve tried many different recordings, I’ve heard it live, and I still don’t get it.  Help.  I know my friend Ken loves the Sixth.  I wonder if Ed over at The Daily Beethoven has some insight.  All I know is that you could have read this post just over 70 times during the second movement alone, which would make my page view stats seem impressive for a change.  I’m listening to the second movement as I’m typing this and erjn    nka;nak;;ekj;nr;gekrjk;aaeeeeegjrngegvv  e;;jngve eur;rnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhjhtjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjekkjjjhggggggggb olslk;;a;ellaqn;jk

What happened?


13 thoughts on “I have a problem: Beethoven 6 sucks

  1. I hate to say this, but your problem might have more to do with you than with Beethoven. I used to wonder (in my youth) about the Sixth Symphony as well, but then I got a chance to play it (I have played the piccolo part, the first violin part, and the viola part, and I have taught the second violin part). My esteem for the piece keeps going up and up.

    Perhaps some experience with the Violin Sonatas and some of the Piano Sonatas might give you a closer look at this part of Beethoven’s musical psyche. Perhaps the realization that the even-numbered symphonies are relatively sweet and light in character, while the odd-numbered symphonies are more intense might help you put it into perspective.

    Beethoven wrote a lot of intense music between 1806 and 1808, so writing the Pastoral Symphony could really have served as a way of Beethoven finding balance. The more you experience in life, the more you realize the need for balance. Give it a decade or two, and I imagine you might have a different understanding of the piece.

  2. Hi Elaine,

    Oh, I definitely agree I’m the one with the problem…I wouldn’t question Beethoven on much of anything, unless it involved hearing a faint beeping noise.

    But that’s part of what frustrates me so much about it, is that I consider myself comfortable with Beethoven’s softer side. I adore the 8th Symphony (and the 2nd and 4th, which aren’t quite as soft, but compared to the 3rd and 5th I suppose almost anything seems to be). I love the Razumovsky quartets, Waldstein, Appassionata, the Ghost Trio…

    I suppose a stock “different strokes for different folks” thing is in play here, but I can’t bring myself to accept that. I’m going to keep trying. Do you have a particular recording that you think gets the message across the best?

  3. The most engaging performances I have heard have been live concert recordings, or performances I have played in.

    There are a lot of conductors who don’t “get it.” Kleiber’s recording is the best recording I know:

  4. Is it possible that because the 6th is sandwiched between two AWESOME symphonies, it’s a slight letdown? I think the 1st movement of the 6th is beautiful, and it makes me want to go outside and survey the 1/8 of an acre we live on with pride and feelings of communing with nature. The 2nd movement makes me sleepy…and if I had a hammock, I wouldn’t get out of it until 3 days later, when this movement ends. I’ve got to get the girls to school, otherwise I would keep going…

    The 6th isn’t my favorite, but I don’t hate it. It’s just one of those more forgettable symphonies that one recognizes bits and pieces of when they are on hold or in an elevator.

    That is a tragedy, is it not?

  5. I have to admit the 6th is the only one where I actually fell asleep to during a concert (yes the infamous soporific 2nd movement). The seats were nosebleeds and the air was really bad up there, kind of humid…still – I saw the 9th from a nearby seat and that one I practically needed seatbelts for.

    But the thing that really makes the 6th for me tho is that it’s the only one with an explicitly “elemental” programmatic subtext. For that reason alone it’s epic. Sure, the brook part is “hypnotic” (to put it politely), and the final movement is a bit anticlimactic after all that storming about, but it’s nice to have one of the “9” not end on some whirling dervish allegro vivace. I think it’s a great sound-paintimg, too – after it’s over I feel like I’ve actually been on some kind of journey.

    I guess the other thing that comes to mind in defense of the 6th is that it’s the only symphony I can listen to shortly after the 9th. To me the 9th is pretty much “When the Music’s Overrrr…” – it has that real “omega” feeling at the end. The only thing preventing me from throwing out the rest of my CD collection is putting on the Pastoral and getting the feeling of “rebirth”.

    Today’s Daily Beethoven has Leonard Bernstein giving a good defense of the 6th as well. Here’s the direct link to a video:

    Bernstein also goes on at length about the 6th in one of his Harvard “Unanswered Questions” lectures. The first movement is generated entirely from the first phrase.

    As far as good recordings I always choose HIP performances for cases where I need some extra abrasion to keep me going. I think the Pletnev performance is also just weird enough that it might hold your attention.
    Also I recommend the 6th from the 60’s Karajan DVD cycle where he directed the film himself and he gets really “artsy” with the set and camera angles. Hilarity ensues.

  6. @ Gina

    In theory that’s a possibility, but I love the 4th Symphony, and it’s sandwiched between the most revolutionary and most perfect symphonies of all-time. Perhaps I need to take your approach and try listening to the piece among nature. Or maybe listen to the 2nd movement and drive all the way across the country.

    @ Ed

    Perhaps I should listen to the 6th after the 9th to see how it feels. I can certainly see what you’re saying. I’m going to seek out the Pletnev, and take another listen to the Vanska and Jarvi, perhaps. I think I have the Beethoven 5 from the Karajan cycle you speak of…there’s some great camera work that looks like it came out of a 1960’s Kung Fu movie.

    Now that I think about it, perhaps I just hate nature…I’m always bored to tears with the 3rd movement of Fantastique as well. In Nature’s Realm is pretty rad, though.

  7. Hey Erik

    It is 95% your problem, and 5% Beethoven’s own fault for making the piece so challenging for listeners and players.

    It’s interesting you mention Spielberg- both LvB and big Steve are generally very linear storytellers. That’s what makes LvB’s use of sonata form so compelling and Spielberg’s movies so popular. One thing people find hard to take about Schumann and Schubert’s large scale works is that they are not linear storytellers in the same way Beethoven is- they have completely different goals.

    The Pastoral is Beethoven’s exception that proves the rule- it is like a Schubert or Schumann symphony, rather than a Beethoven. It’s about experience rather than goal. In the same way that a long Schubert movement forces us to walk the tight rope of tempo and direction to keep in from collapsing under its own weight, a conductor has to be really careful to not let things bog down (especially in the 2nd mvt, which is the toughest thing ever).

    Nature’s Realm is obviously inspired by the Pastoral, and has quite a few little references (most obviously the key), so there’s a starting point.

    Anyway, I envy you the chance of discovering why LvB 6 rules.

  8. Pingback: Beethoven 6 Redux : Turns out it doesn’t suck « Everything But The Music

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  11. I completely agree with you, I can’t stand the 6th and used to have to listen to it regularly. I think you were right when you speculated he may not have known much about farm life, just like the painter of the picture (which you think was ok but I think is silly). Professional people have never understood farmers, nor vice versa, and many famous artists through the ages have made asses out of themselves trying to depict farm life (generally those who didn’t grow up on one). But, in addition, the music itself is lousy, shifting, not really having a melody and not having a lot of development either. I feel that way about a lot of Beethoven’s music. I just don’t like much of it and don’understand why he was so critical an influence, but am not in a music field or trained in it, other than intermediate level on a few instruments. I just don’t think he composed memorable melodies, unlike Mozart and Schubert, and I don’t like his heavy style.

  12. Pingback: Beethoven 6 | useallthenotes

  13. If you don’t like Beethoven’s sixth you might not help from music lovers but from a shrink :)

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