Pain and the Pastoral Symphony

Rosenna EastWed 7th November 2012

What it means to perform Beethoven's Sixth Symphony on tour with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Rosenna East, violinist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, writes about what it means to her to perform Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. As part of their current tour of the grand concert halls of Europe, the SCO will perform their first London concert under principal conductor Robin Ticciati at The Barbican on November 13. As well as the Beethoven, they will play Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with guest soloist, the young German violinist Veronika Eberle.

Isn't it beautiful, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony? Lovely music that meanders with you through streams, meadows and birdsong bliss. Leading you by the hand, dreamy and delighted, it's just gorgeous. What a pleasure to play, particularly with the SCO and Ticciati.

But I'd like to tell you about the pain. Bear with me – it's an important part of the pleasure.

Come and sit in my seat on stage for a minute – this time the principal second violin seat, somewhere pretty close to the conductor's right elbow. Watch you don't get that baton in the eye.   

Now, as a second violin, your main job in life is the moving inner parts of the repertoire. In this piece, as in many others, you're going to play a lot of semiquavers. For example, in the second movement, it falls to you to depict the ceaselessly tumbling water of the flowing brook – so start limbering up, would be my advice. And this particular brook is flowing quite a long way, so you should also pray for a conductor that doesn't take it too slow. 

Luckily you've got Ticciati on the podium in front of you and his tempos are beautiful – so this movement feels about perfect. You can relax. For three movements, you're sitting pretty.

Then, you will remember, there comes a storm.

Cue a dramatic change of mental attitude. You should now start thinking like a long-distance athlete facing the race of your life. You've got a few bars of gentle raindrops at the start, but then all hell is going to break loose. Tie yourself to the mast. All of you on stage are part of the air being rent asunder with terrifying thunder, lightening, wind and rain, and it's not going to stop for two pages. Remember not all your bars are equally important – don't get swept away with the excitement. If you give it too much at the start, I'm afraid you're unlikely to see the end. 

At about the mid point of the storm, why not look up, through the sweat now fogging your vision, to see how the violas are doing on the other side? They are your partners in this relentless movement that sweeps all before it. Assuming they're still upright in their chairs, you'll recognise the brows creased in frown and the gritted line of clenched jaws – signs that they too are digging deep to power through that build up of lactic acid in the right arm.

And just when you think you can't go on another second, that surely this storm will destroy you, on the horizon there appears that beacon of hope – a semibreve, a long note, a slow note. Your right arm drops, the body unlocks from spasm, the ears ring gently. You limp bedraggled to the key change. The line is marked dolce. The flute rises from the debris to an elevated plane of bliss and relief, and you're in the last movement. You've made it, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end with the beauty of it all. 

It's a powerful feeling, that passage from pain to bliss. So powerful, in fact, that it's imprinted somewhere deep in my brain. Once I lay on a hospital bed, after an operation, while nurses gave me morphine for pain. It wasn't really working, but they told me I couldn't have any more. So I asked for my iPod instead. 

There in that recovery ward, I discovered that the experience of playing the Pastoral Symphony had been laid down in my neural pathways. While listening, my brain was playing the music it knew so well, though my body was stationary. And the joy and relief that floods my mind in that last movement was the same. The music was more powerful than anaesthetic that day, and with Beethoven's notes in my blood stream, there was at last no more pain.

Rosenna East

Rosenna East is a violinist and writer. She is sub principal second violin of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and also works as a guest principal with other ensembles around the UK. In parallel to her work as a musician, she is a regular contributor in print to The Herald Scotland, Classical Music Magazine and The Big Issue, as well as being a commentator for BBC Radio Scotland.

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