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Pastoral theme in music has deep roots

February 19, 2004|by Elizabeth Schulze

This weekend the Maryland Symphony Orchestra will present a program of three orchestral works inspired by pastoral scenes of nature and stories of Arcadia.

The pastoral tradition in music can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Though scholars have not found notated music from that time, it is widely thought that the ancient Greeks wrote pastoral music to accompany their poems and dramas. Literary works such as "Idylls" were recited in public, with each verse accompanied by instruments that had pastoral associations, such as the early Greek flute, or syrinx.

Inspired by a pastoral poem by the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarm, Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" immediately suggests the pagan, Arcadian scene of a faun awaking from his erotic dreams with a sensuously languid musical line played by the solo flute. This association with the pipes of Pan and the use of exotic modal harmonies evokes in the listener a sense of something ancient and otherworldly. The Prelude was a musical landmark and it found immediate success with audiences.

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During the Renaissance, the pastoral poem became a favored genre, and by the end of the 16th century it was the predominant style, particularly in Italy. These poems, and later plays, dealt with shepherds and other rustic subjects, and often incorporated a mythical element as well. As with the ancient Greeks, this poetry was found to be ideal for musical treatment. It fostered the development of the vocal madrigal, a form recognized as an early forerunner to opera.

One of these late 16th-century pastoral literary works was the play "Il Pastor Fido," which means the faithful shepherd, by Battista Guarini. The story of a young shepherd who must prove his worthiness to the goddess Diana remained popular with audiences well into the 18th century, when George Frideric Handel chose to compose an opera based on Guarini's play. Surprisingly, the opera did not find favor initially and though Handel revised it on two occasions, it never had the success of his other operatic works.

Lost to audiences for almost 200 years, Handel's opera "Il Pastor Fido" found a champion in the 20th century in the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who brought it back to life on the operatic stage and also arranged selections from the opera into a concert suite for symphony orchestra. Beecham's suite is an elegant reinterpretation of Handel's music and despite its orchestration, which calls for the forces of a modern orchestra, the beauty of the original material emerges unforced and still wonderfully engaging.

Surely, the most significant pastoral work in the orchestral repertoire remains Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op.68. Beethoven himself subtitled the work "Sinfonia Pastorella." Intended as a "recollection of life in the country," Beethoven was quick to add that the music was "more an expression of feeling than a depiction." The symphony is unapologetic in its rustic allusions to shepherd drones and bird songs, but this is not literal tone painting. Instead, Beethoven allows us the richer experience of discovering this musical countryside ourselves.




Elizabeth Schulze is music director of The Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

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