As NYC and the entire NE region brace for a major winter storm—one which the media has taken to calling “Nemo,” in a fit of particularly crass commercialism (“If we name it, we can SELL it!”)—I have been reflecting on some of my favorite examples of pastoral evocations in music. These, however, aren’t some of the obvious choices. None has “Pastoral” in its title, nor does any one of them specifically refer to the pastoral in a programmatic sense. Rather, these examples all incorporate some form of the typical musical devices associated with pastoral settings: lilting rhythms (often in the mould of the siciliana), gentle melodies, and occasional allusions to quotidian life (i.e. folk music). I present three examples.
The one that comes first to mind is found buried deep in the Haydn Variations of Brahms. Cast in the 6/8 meter of the siciliana, Variation VII typifies all that is serene in the natural world. Of course, Brahms couldn’t have been thinking exclusively of fields, flowers, and fauns. Somewhere at work in all this was a mind bent on fashioning a tightly-wrought argument in invertible counterpoint. Notice how the upper voice in the first phrase (a descending scale in the violins) is transferred to the bass in the second phrase. Brahms busied himself with all manner of Baroque procedures in this work, as much an homage to Haydn (who, of course, was not the author of the strange little theme in five-bar phrases at all—but Brahms didn’t know [or care] about that!) as to Bach, the master of the ars contrapuctus.
In this (complete) recording of the Haydn Variations, you’ll need to “scrub” ahead to 10:47 to start the seventh variation. Along the way, notice the full flowering of melody (in a classic Brahmsian hemiola) at the stroke of 11:52:
Next up, a subtle example from Beethoven. If ever I am in need of instant transport away from daily cares, this is the ticket. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A major, op. 101, is among my favorites, and it’s hard to imagine a more serene opening to a work—one measure is enough speed the listener on his/her way:
For those of you who know this work, you might also delight in various moments later on. Two such in the second movement, a march, always astound me. First, the manner in which Beethoven gets us from one key to another (at 05:20) is so surprising, not for it strange-sounding chords, but for the fact that, upon examination, those chords underlie nothing but a Circle of Fifths progression! Yet, upon arrival in D-flat major (the movement overall is in F), you might as well be on Mars. The next occurs a few seconds later: embedded in the middle voice, a gurgling figure in the right hand that is comprised of nothing more (or less) than the opening motive of the whole piece (05:55)!
Finally, we go back to Brahms. Since the moment I first heard it as a kid, the Trio section in the third movement of Brahms’s First Quartet in C minor, op. 51 no. 1, has fascinated me. The second violin oscillates between two strings on a unison A creating a drone effect that undergirds the very Ländler-like feel of this music. (The mediant relationship in the chords doesn’t hurt either!) Find yourself at 20:05 in this historic recording, and then stick with it to the end of the Trio:
I hope you enjoyed these little hearth-warming excerpts. Now, back to the hunkering!