Symphony No. 6 in F Op. 68, Pastoral (1808)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Allegro ma non troppo Happy feelings on arrival in the country
- Andante molto moto Scene by the brook
- Allegro Merry-making of country folk —– 4. Allegro Thunderstorm —–5. Allegretto Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm
Although born in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven spent most of his life in Vienna. The years prior to 1808 had been increasingly turbulent for Beethoven. His deafness was increasingly troubling, he was rejected in love, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon, and his brother Caspar had got married, depriving Ludwig of a secretary. It is therefore not surprising that his famous and tumultuous fifth symphony arose out of this turmoil. However, the pastoral sixth is an unlikely counterpoint, the ‘yang’ to the fifth’s ‘yin’. Both premiered alongside the 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy in a marathon four-hour concert in December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Despite poorly rehearsed musicians and the failure of the heating, the new works received an enthusiastic reception from the stoic audience.
Beethoven loved the countryside, writing “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear.”. With his deafness well advanced by now, perhaps the Pastoral symphony is a reflection of Beethoven’s “desire to hear” again those sounds he cherished.
The Pastoral is by no means the first example of “musical tone painting”, in which music depicts a picture. Think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Haydn’s Creation, for example. Beethoven indicated on the original first violin part that it is “More an Expression of Feeling than Painting.” What was revolutionary, and rarely emulated subsequently, was the masterful way in which the music conveys that feeling.
Beethoven condoned the title of the symphony and provided titles for each movement. Happy feelings on arrival in the country are evoked in the long first movement. The opening motif creeps in on the strings as if we are onlookers to a bucolic scene. This motif forms virtually the entire thematic material of this movement. Beethoven invokes stillness and calm through repetition and subtle changes of harmonies over long spans. At one point, five notes from the main theme are repeated 80 times without a break and yet the music retains life and motion. Scene by the Brook retains the gentle mood as the murmuring of the brook is recalled by rippling strings. The famous ending features a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet) apparently included by Beethoven as a joke.
The last three movements proceed without a break; (so is this a three-movement or five-movement symphony? Most have only four.) The Merry-making of Country Folk continues the bucolic mood with an inebriated rustic band making an appearance; the oboe enters a beat too early, then the second bassoon staggers in, only able to conjure up a few notes! The celebrations are interrupted by raindrops on the violins. These develop into a brilliantly portrayed cataclysmic Thunderstorm as trombones, timpani and piccolo appear for the first time. As the thunder rumbles off into the distance, peace returns and yodelling by the clarinets and horns introduces the hymn-like Shepherd’s Song finale replete with inventive development of the simple yodelling motif into a hymn of praise. As Beethoven wrote in the manuscript: “We give thee thanks for thy great glory.”