Conducted by Christian Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, also known as the Pastoral Symphony (German: Pastoral-Sinfonie).
First performed in the Theater an der Wien on 22 December 1808, the “Pastoral” is the warmest and probably the most beloved of all Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna, the city where he lived in from 1792 until his death (1827), to work in rural locations. His sixth represents the expression of the love the composer holds for nature.
In a letter to Therese Malfatti (who widely believed to be the dedicatee of Beethoven’s famous piano piece “Für Elise”) in the summer of 1808, Beethoven said “How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass and the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give man the resonance he needs.”
The first sketches of the Pastoral Symphony appeared in 1802. It was composed simultaneously with Beethoven’s more famous—and more fiery—Fifth Symphony. Both symphonies were premiered in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 22 December 1808. The title of the first editionwas: “Pastoral-Sinfonie oder Erinnerung an das Landleben. (Mehr Ausdruck der Emphindung als Mahlerey.)” – “Pastoral Symphony or Recollection of the Life in the Countryside”.
The composer said that the Sixth Symphony is “more the expression of feeling than painting”, a point underlined by the title of the first movement.
Unlike the other symphonies of the Classical era, the Pastoral has five movements, instead of four. Beethoven annotated the beginning of each movement as follows:
- Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside): Allegro ma non troppo
The 1st part has as programmatic indication Notes 1. This part has genuine popular sonority through the choice of instruments and the use of typically rural instrumental music. Musical themes are short, allowing shifts from one psychological state to another through their repetition.
Theme I (one) brings a new climate, more of a motif, which through segmentation will ultimately create a natural setting in which man is shrouded in pleasure.
- Szene am Bach (Scene by the brook): Andante molto mosso
This movement, titled by Beethoven “By the brook,” is in 12/8 meter; the key is B flat major, the subdominant of the main key of the work. The movement is in sonata form.
At the opening the strings play a motif that clearly imitates flowing water. The cello section is divided, with just two players playing the flowing-water notes on muted instruments, with the remaining cellos playing mostly pizzicato notes together with the double basses.
The cadenza of bird calls in the second movement; the intended species are labeled in German. Click to enlarge.
Toward the end of the movement there is a cadenza for woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets).
- Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry gathering of country folk): Allegro
This movement is particularly interesting from the point of view of the construction. This is a scherzo in 3/4 time, which depicts country folk dancing and reveling. The theme is built through the repetition of a motif, only on totally different structures (F major and then D major), as if it reflects the external position of the viewer with regard to the others.
- Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder. Storm): Allegro
The fourth movement, in F minor, depicts a violent thunderstorm with painstaking realism, building from just a few drops of rain to a great climax with thunder, lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain. The storm eventually passes, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. There is a seamless transition into the final movement. When the storm is over, all living creatures come to the surface, taking their place in the natural cycle; this is rendered by a choral of flutes, which come as a true sunshine.
- Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto
The fifth and last movement is a hymn of gratitude towards nature. The finale is in F major and is in 6/8 time and constructed as a sonata with rondo elements, impresses through its simplicity and constitutes a true idyll, a pastoral scene. This is a genuine idyll, infinitely strain from false musical-idyllic fantasies, so often reminding of Arcadian shepherds, in satin bowed shoes and sheep with pink or blue-sky ribbons.
The coda starts quietly and gradually builds to an ecstatic culmination for the full orchestra (minus “storm instruments”), with the first violins playing very rapid triplet tremolo on a high F. There follows a fervent passage suggestive of prayer, marked by Beethoven “pianissimo, sotto voce”; most conductors slow the tempo for this passage. After a brief period of afterglow, the work ends with two emphatic F major chords.
- Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music. Ludwig van Beethoven felt a certain reluctance in writing program music, and said of his 1808 Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) that the “whole work can be perceived without description – it is more an expression of feelings rather than tone-painting”. Yet the work clearly contains depictions of bird calls, a bubbling brook, a storm, and so on.