Symphony No 6

in F Major, Op. 68 ("Pastoral"), Ludwig Van Beethoven

Beethoven titled only two of his symphonies, and the only time in Beethoven’s symphonic career that he wrote any “program notes” occurred at the premiere of his Sixth Symphony on December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wein.  In the printed program that evening, this guide appeared:

“Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting. First piece: pleasant feelings, which awaken in men on arriving in the countryside. Second piece: scene by the brook. Third piece: merry gathering of country people, interrupted by the fourth piece: thunder and storm, which breaks into the fifth piece: salutary feelings combined with thanks to the Deity.” Thus, the images are specific; but possibly in his own mind a bit unnecessary. On another occasion, he also wrote: “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the author without a lot of titles.” Disclaimers aside, the titles indicate exactly what is being presented, and  the result is music, painting via evocation and specific nature references, which are undeniable.  The choice of the countryside would have been natural for the composer.  He loved his daily walks “where nature is so beautifully silent. How happy I am to be able to wander among the bushes and grass, under trees and over rocks, no man can love the country as I love it.” (Beethoven’s Letters to Therese Malfatti, 1808.)

Opus 68 debuted on a gigantic, benefit program, conducted by Beethoven, which also included the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, his Fourth Piano Concerto, three excerpts from his Mass in C major, the aria Ah, Perfido and concluded with the Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.  The extended event was further complicated by the fact that all the heating went out in the concert hall, but the audience loyally remained seated, for four hours, undoubtedly shivering, until the end.  Beethoven wrote to his publisher, “In spite of the fact that various mistakes were made, which I could not prevent, the public nevertheless applauded the whole performance with enthusiasm.”

The first movement opens with a direction that it should be played “cheerfully, but not too fast. “ First and second violins proclaim a simple theme, which provides the basis of the movement. Contrary to intense thematic development in his previous symphonies, Beethoven chooses a far less complicated path for this melody. Simple repetitions of the theme, and repetitions of thematic segments served the composer’s wishes.  Owen Downes observed, “At one point a tiny five-note figure derived from the second measure is repeated some eighty times without interruption, and yet the whole movement makes an impression of inexhaustibly fertile imagination.”  Secondary themes emerge, but never displace the importance of the initial theme.

Scene by the Brook continues the gentle mood of the first movement and is written in sonata-allegro format. Second violins set up the watery vision with murmuring triplet figures, while violins produce two main themes. A development follows, and a recapitulation recalls the opening themes (now with heavier orchestration.) An area including the chirping of a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet) prefaces the small coda, which closes the movement.  Beethoven once commented that these avian appearances were “nothing but a joke.” In a notebook from 1803, Beethoven had sketched a watery idea, noted by “The graver the river, the more grave the tone.”

The third movement Merry Assembly of Country Folk  provides a boisterous scherzo, probably a parody of rustic bands the composer had heard in Viennese taverns.  Anton Schindler commented,  “Beethoven asked me if I had noticed how village musicians often played in their sleep, occasionally letting their instruments fall and keeping quite still, and then waking up with a start, getting in a few vigorous blows or strokes at a venture, although usually in the right key before dropping to sleep again.  Apparently he had tried to portray these people in the “Pastoral Symphony.”  (The most famous is a caricature of an inept bassoon player occurring in the middle of the first section.  Herein, the bassoon player seems capable of only two notes. Celli and violas later mock the bassoonist with descending pitches as the bassoon drops.

In the fourth movement, the fun at the Merry Assembly of Country Folk is interrupted by a fearsome Thunderstorm, possibly representing a tumult both in nature and in Beethoven’s psyche. At this time his deafness had progressed at an alarming speed over the past seven years. By 1805 he had acknowledged, “winds for me are lost in any orchestral tutti.” Thus, we arrive at a terrifying, stressful experience. What could be worse for a composer than losing hearing? “ It is no longer just a wind and rain storm; it is a frightful cataclysm, a universal deluge, the end of the world,” Hector Berlioz commented.

Softly, the movement tiptoes in, with violin “raindrops.”  This imagery will appear several times in the movement. The intrusion of a ramming F minor triad signifies that all the merry-making is at risk.  Nature takes over with violence and the music is filled with dissonant passages.  Piccolos scream and shoot lightning bolts; timpani hammer thunderclaps; volcanic rhythmic patterns shift the winds.  In a remarkable climax Beethoven summons a huge syncopated chord (including trombones) over the long span of six measures. Gradually, the storm subsides and Beethoven provides an exquisite rainbow in a long melodic line.

The fifth movement, Happy, grateful feelings after the storm: Allegretto begins with simple songs spun from the clarinet, followed by solo horn.  It is likely that the composer was recalling little melodies he had heard on the outskirts of Vienna. The orchestra seizes the modest ideas and provides extensive development and ornamentation for the duration of the movement. In the manuscript of the symphony Beethoven wrote, “We give thee thanks for thy great glory.” His pantheistic philosophy consistently found proximity to God in nature.

Five years would pass before another symphony would be forthcoming.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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Program Notes