Musings on a theme: pastoral

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In November, I attended the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 The Pastoral” (1808). I consider this work equally, if not more listenable, compared to the composer’s more mainstream, epic “Symphonies 5 and 9”. It also stands as one of his few programmatic pieces, in that it recounts a story, as the composer notes at the beginning of each movement a series of descriptors: “Awakening Of Cheerful Feelings On Arrival In The Countryside,” “Scene By The Brook,” “Merry Gathering Of Country Folk,” “Thunder: Storm,” and “Shepherd’s Song: Happy And Thankful Feelings After The Storm.” The pithy, intricate melodies of rustic central Europe, from which the work’s themes spring, have often attracted the attention of the Austrian and Czech composers, namely Haydn and Schubert and, later, Mahler and Janacek. They carry one into the shady, verdant idylls of Arcadia, akin to the paintings of Poussin or Watteau.

Yet, amidst the bucolic frolicking, war is coming and the Austrian Empire, having already been seized by Napoleon in 1805, will be overrun by the French just over a year after the symphony’s premiere, inviting distinct parallels to the other famous symphonic pastoral work, Ralph Vaughan William’s “Symphony No. 3” (1922). With its zephyrous flute warbling and modal, meandering strings, the English composer, who had been artistically profoundly shaken by his time as a medic on the Western Front, reminisces wistfully for England before the Great War. This same soundscape is featured in his popular “Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis,” “The Lark Ascending,” “English Folk Song Suite,” and “Fantasia On Greensleeves.” It is his regard for national folk-song culture and regret for the Trollopian encroachment on countryside that prompts the next selections which are both albums by folk bands from U.S.

Other Lives are from Oklahoma and were introduced to me by my Latin teacher, of all people, to soothe the stresses of A-level unseen. Originally it was a purely instrumental outfit, hence the profuse textures of their sophomore album, Tamer Animals (2011). Built around knotty guitar patterns, strings and piano, one song in particular, “Dust Bowl III,” gives a wistful, post-Grapes of Wrath account of living in the Midwest by a shepherd. You could think of it as Woody Guthrie meets Steve Reich. Other songs that merit a listen are the reedy “Dark Horse” and “For 12,” as well as their latest release, “Rituals”.

Similarly refreshing in textural verve (and hipster beards) are Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and their self-titled album of 2008. It is as if The Beach Boys and Pet Sounds collided with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, or so The Guardian thought anyway. The record itself pinpoints its principal concern as nature, not least through its wacky Brueghel artwork, but the open, contented harmonies and imagery of Pacific Northwest in songs like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” “Ragged Wood,” “Meadowlarks,” and “Blue Ridge Mountains.” Good news, too- they’re supposed to be bringing out a new album in the next few months after a six-year hiatus and embarking on a world tour!

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