Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 28 “Pastorale”
Composed: 1800-1801, dedicated to Count Joseph von Sonnenfels
Movement 1: Allegro
Form: Sonata form
A little while ago, I friend recommended me an amazing documentary, Alone in the Wilderness, about a man called Dick Proenneke. He was a carpenter, among other things, who decided to retire early and live a life on his own in the wilderness in Alaska. It’s a beautiful story about the pastoral dream of turning away from life’s complications to the simpleness of nature.
At the heart of the pastoral dream is the idea that we will achieve happiness and inner piece by living a simpler life. In a way, it’s a paradox: wanting more out of life by wanting less. An analogy could be made with most pastoral-influenced music: there is a simpleness in in the music that turns away from complexity, at least on the surface.
Beethoven’s pastoral dream in real life was not fake or just something following what was “in” during the time. He loved being in the nature, and seemed to be at his creative best while taking walks in the woods. It is not far-fetched to think that to Beethoven, nature was closer to his music than the minds of human beings were: nature had beauty, harmony, power, and so many other things we associate with Beethoven’s music. For example, some of his best works were clearly inspired by nature, and here is a melody from the Symphony he wrote to celebrate nature. When I heard this tune as a kid it was the first time I fell in love with Beethoven’s music:
Why the name “Pastoral”?
The sonata in D major, op. 28 is nicknamed the “Pastoral Sonata”. It is not a name by Beethoven himself, but was put in the first edtion. The name is certainly a good one.
A “Pastorale” is a frequent form in Baroque music: Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli have composed famous Pastorales. Here is a famous example of a Pastorale from Vivaldi’s The Seasons:
Note the pastoral character in general, and one more thing that is typical of a pastorale: the sustained bass, a drone bass which is held for long stretches in the beginning. The bass line doesn’t really start to move until .45 into the soundclip. A third characteristic is that the meter of the piece is in three (meaning that the basic pulse, generally the number of beats in a bar, is 1-2-3, 1-2-3 etc.)
A drone in music is a single note that is held for a long time. It is common in folk music, and we have all probably heard it in bag pipe music. That long, sustained tone that is not moving, that’s a drone:
Classical composers liked to include a drone in their music to get a rustic, sometimes folksy (not in the the first movement of the Pastoral Sonata though, but definitely in the last movement as we shall see) and, yes, pastoral character.
Now, on a piano, a note cannot be held for a long time without dying out, so the trick is to repeat the note again and again. Which is what Beethoven does in the first movement; there is a D played in the bass throughout the first 24 bars, not until bar 25 does that D move a bit:
The pastoral genre is also a part of theatre, art and poetry. It is a a genre built on plain, simple representations of a gentle nature. However, there are tensions that will build into any work of the genre because of the threat of disruption of the calm.
For example, in most pastoral paintings, the idyllic scene is surrounded with a slightly threatening background. Look at the painting above: there are dark clouds and deep mountains in the backgrounds. The idyll is never complete, as in life itself.
As you can see in the score, Beethoven starts out (just like the bagpipe piece above does) with the drone playing by itself. It’s short, only three times he plays out the bass, but that creates a wonderful effect. Another composer might have stayed longer on that “drone” to say “hey, listen, I’m starting with a drone here! Can you hear it?”. But Beethoven wants to whisper it for a very short time and has the beautiful melody come in almost “too early”. Why? Well, it makes the “fragile harmony” even more fragile. Sometimes life is like that, it’s when everything is really how you like it to be that you get worried about what can happen to destroy this perfect moment, right?
So, above this drone bass, a wonderfully poetic and sensitive melody expands:
The scene is set. Beethoven paints an idyllic, tranquil atmosphere with these beautiful first bars. Again, he shows how quickly he can transform a piece to a definite character: in the shortest time he makes us feel like we are completely into the scene he has presented to us.
Soon however, the melody starts to move anxiously with turns and off-beat accents:
The real “trouble in paradise” moment comes a bit later. First, Beethoven makes his signature move: a crescendo, the music getting louder and louder and all of a sudden an almost shocking subito piano (suddenly quiet) , at the moment when you would expect more of a forte (it happens 14 seconds into the following sound clip):
What happens now is very important to the understanding of this piece. The Pastorale Sonata is not an overly, outwardly dramatic piece. But I find that the first movement is too often played in a one-dimensionally, calm way (in a slow tempo at that). Beethoven would not write such a long movement without any drama in there, the difference here compared to many of the early sonatas is that the dramatic storytelling is on a much more refined and delicate level.
Right after the subito piano moment, we hear this:
Listen again, to the baseline… it moves constantly up and down in parallel motion with the melody. And that creates an unstable feeling, which is a contrast to the beginning: remember the drone bass which was on a constant d in the bass, now the bass is moving up and down constantly. So there is the contrast within the exposition of the first movement: a calm, peaceful beginning which gradually turns into a more anxious, unstable character.
If you listen through the exposition, the movement is based on long, more or less sweeping melodies, not these “choppy” shorter themes we often hear in the early sonatas. Let’s compare the first themes on the op. 2 sonatas (all three are played in this clip):
And then the first theme of the “Pastorale”:
This change is something very typical and significant in Beethoven’s development from a “pianist-composer” style in his early years which was very dynamic, at times flashy (and I mean that not at all in a negative way) and theatrical, to a more “composer’s composer” way of writing with music that is more patient, poetic and have a more inward and delicate sense of drama. This is, of course, a generalization which does not fit 100%: the “Waldstein” is still to be written, which fits fine in being described as very dynamic, at times flashy and the slow introduction is quite theatrical, but composers are never predictable in a way that we can nail down their tendencies too “cleanly” and thank goodness for that.
If you go back and read a the post on the Sonata op. 14 no. 2 there is more on this change in Beethoven’s way of writing.
Building drama by breaking down the theme
In so many of hiw works, Beethoven takes a short, sometimes almost trivial, theme or motive and builds on it, let’s compare it (not the best of analogies, I admit) to building a brick wall by putting bricks together. Take the fifth symphony as an example, this four note motive, which might just be the most famous motive ever written:
He build into this:
But in the Pastoral Sonata, the melody is there in full bloom from the start. You can’t possibly build something “longer” on this:
It’s not a brick, it’s already a beautiful wall with all the bricks there.
So what does Beethoven do with this melody to build a drama? Well, simply put, he just reverses the action: instead of building a wall of bricks he takes the bricks apart. He chops this melody in smaller and smaller parts, so that at the end of the development this beautiful melody has only a single note left.
Let’s walk through how he does this.
He starts the development with something very conventional: play the theme in the subdominant, which makes it more relaxed and permits the music to “start over” and build new tension.
But already when the same theme is repeated one octave higher, the tension builds by Beethoven embellishing the theme (in itself this is an excellent example how Beethoven uses embellishments no more like the baroque style, for variation instead of repeating the same, but as a part of the form and the dramatic storyline of the piece) and in the middle of it we have, again, the good old subito piano effect we so often hear in Beethoven’s music:
Then Beethoven starts to “chop off” this melody, making it shorter and shorter. And kind of just like you breath faster and shorter when you get excited, so the music moves faster with the excitement and build-up. The melody gets shorter and shorter and is soon enough not a melody anymore, but a motive which finally settles down on being only one single note, a chord being played repeatedly as the music comes to a still.
These three notes calms down and finally, in the right hand, we are left with one single note left, played as a chord:
If this was a bit confusing or inaudible, I have put a metronome tick for every start of the motive, so here you can hear very clearly how the music is “compressed” and gains dramatic effect by playing a smaller and smaller part of that melody:
And now, after those ugly tick-tocks, let’s listen to the whole development. Beethoven basically just uses the wonderful melody and breaks it into pieces, and with that creates this wonderful, dramatic momentum.
Our quote for this post would be:
“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.”
All sound examples from the sonata are from Volume V of the Beethoven Sonatas CD series