This is the first in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
You can take photos or paint en plein air to capture the experience; and I suppose the seriously committed might take out a drone with iMax cameras to make it fully immersive. But music is uniquely able to evoke being out in the natural world, which is why composers have been obsessed with it since time immemorial.
Symphony No. 6 “The Pastoral”: 1. Cheerful Feelings on arriving in the country (Op. 68, 1808)
—Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, German) Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
Who better to start with than the one whose 250th anniversary is this year? Beethoven’s 6th is much loved for good reason. Unlike most of his works, he actually provides narrative descriptions for each movement. So this is not abstract or “pure” music but is what is technically called “programme music.” That means the composer has particular images or experiences in mind with each musical development. This first movement then captures the sheer relief of escaping from urban bustle into the countryside; we can feel his sense of being able to breathe again and the warmth of the early summer sun as we wander through land bursting with life.
The Lark Ascending (1914)
—Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958, English)
Iona Brown (violin), Sir Neville Marriner & Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, Vaughan-Williams’ standalone piece for violin and orchestra is sublime. He was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of old English and other folk-songs, and the orchestra transports us back into a rustic (dare I say, Shire-like?!) world that would have sung them. But our focus is on the skylark, portrayed by the violin circling and rising high into the atmosphere. Here are the opening lines of Meredith’s poem to give an idea of what the composer was getting at:
He rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound, Of many links without a break, In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
Im Frühling / In Spring (D.882; poem by Ernst Schulze, 1826)
—Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austrian) Matthias Goerne (baritone), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Schubert is one of the finest song-writers in musical history, certainly when it comes to settings of poetry. He wrote hundreds of songs and this is one of his most loved. As he goes on his solitary meander, the singer in this deceptively simple song (with its gorgeous piano accompaniment) gets all nostalgic in the places he and his lost love would linger in. Everything is as lovely and beautiful as he remembered. . . but nothing can ever be the same now that she is no longer with him. Follow along with the translation here.
Cantus Arcticus (Concerto For Birds And Orchestra): 3. Swans Migrating (Op. 61, 1972)
—Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016, Finnish) Hannu Lintu & Royal Scottish National Orchestra
The arrival of music technology opened up possibilities for all kinds of composers, not just for prog rock or DJ mixing. Now you didn’t need to settle for merely evoking the natural world; you could bring it right into the concert hall. So like many great Scandinavian composers, Rautavaara’s piece brilliantly captures the experience of the frigid north. This piece, from nearly fifty years ago, is spell-binding. The third movement is particularly special, whisking us to a land familiar to few people but a magnet for vast multitudes of migrating birds.
Appalachian Spring: 3. Moderato—duo for the Bride and her Intended (1944)
—Aaron Copland (1900-1990, American) Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony
While perhaps best known for his Fanfare for the Common Man (which he then brilliantly incorporated into his 3rd Symphony), Copland is credited with crafting the archetypal sound of the American West, copied and emulated in countless movie and TV soundtracks. But he was far more versatile than that. This is from a ballet suite (in 8 parts) about a very simple story of a young couple getting married and building a homestead in the middle of nowhere. It thus becomes a classic parable of the American dream. The 7th part is built around variations of the old Shaker tune, “The Gift to be Simple.” But this movement has a wide range of emotions, capturing both the excitement and nervousness of young marrieds as they start out in uncharted land.
An Alpine Symphony (Op. 64, 1915)—an orchestral tone poem
—Richard Strauss (1864-1949, German) Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic (1981)
This is a big one! You’ll need 50 minutes of time to get the whole thing and an orchestra of 125 players to perform it. But I guarantee it is time well-spent!
This is one of the greatest examples of programme music ever written, but I suggest you don’t follow Strauss’s description of each of the 22 sections. Instead, with the knowledge that it depicts a whole day’s hike in the Bavarian Alps starting before dawn, listen and picture it for yourself. You can then compare it afterwards with what Strauss thought he was doing listed here. For music tech nerds, this recording was the first commercial CD ever made!