Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”
For 2 Flutes, Piccolo , 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 2 Trombone Timpani, and Strings
About the Composer
One of the most well-known composers in the Western music canon, Ludwig van Beethoven displayed his musical talents at a very young age. His extensive compositional output includes symphonies, chamber music, solo piano music, choral works, opera and a litany of solo instrumental pieces, among others. Beethoven was a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras of Western music, which is clearly articulated by his three periods of composition (early, middle, late). Born out of the Classical genius of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven fundamentally reordered the period in regard to style, form, and tonality, and in doing so ushered in the Romantic era.
In 1803 Beethoven shepherded in a symphonic revolution with his Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” which many argue is the first symphony to capture the spirit of the Romantic era (and if you joined us last season you heard in our first concert, “Broken Banners”). He continued to propagate this revolution with his Fifth and Sixth, constantly evolving his new symphonic ideal and further separating these works from their 18th -century predecessors. Beethoven transformed the symphony not just in structure, but also consciously strove to create an impression of a psychological journey. As Charles Rosen said, Beethoven took the rigid structures that came before him and turned them into vehicles for the sublime. Beethoven composed his Sixth Symphony in the summer of 1808 and intentionally titled it “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Courtney Life” (At present it simply bears the moniker “Pastoral”). The work was premiered in Vienna on December 22, 1808 alongside his Fifth Symphony. Over three decades later, on January 15, 1842, the Sixth received its US premier at The Odeon here in Boston. Although Beethoven mostly resided in cities, he did escape to the countryside when he was able. In 1810 he wrote, “How delighted I shall be to ramble for a while through bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks, 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” (from a letter to Therese Malfatti).
About the Music
The Sixth is comprised of five movements, marking a departure from the expected four- movement structure. While Beethoven’s title for the symphony, as well as the individual movement’s descriptive subtitles, incline one to hear a programmatic stroll through nature, Beethoven famously noted that the “Pastoral” contained “more an expression of feeling than painting.” In his sketches for the work Beethoven clearly indicated that he wanted his audiences to be able to interpret the sounds they experienced for themselves with such markings as “the hearers should be allowed to discover the situations” and “All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far.” This conflict between Beethoven’s intentions and the innate descriptive landscape of the symphony have fueled interpretive arguments since the composer’s time; nevertheless, it is hard to refute that the symphony exists on both illustrative and expressive levels.
The first movement, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country,” appears to begin out of nowhere, as if the audience is merely stumbling upon a scene that is already in progress. The entirety of the movement is marked by a bucolic spirit, devoid of tension, and filled with a feeling of calm. It is built on melodic and motivic fragmentation that passes through the winds and the strings with a sense of ease. Although there is quite a bit of repetition in this movement, Beethoven turns to rhythmic dissonance (instead of melodic or harmonic) to create conflicting groups of notes that constantly overlap, and effectively prevent the movement from growing stale.
The second movement, “Scene by the brook,” continues the established pastoral nature of the first as the sense of calm grows with a drop in tempo. Throughout the movement the second violins, violas, and cellos utter a series of murmurs, depicting a babbling brook, as the firsts and winds soar above with an exquisite melody. Beethoven’s delicate orchestration transcends the audience out of their chairs and into the magic that their individual experience with nature holds for them. At the close of the movement one hears a series of recognizable birdcalls which Beethoven specifies as: flute for the nightingale, oboe for the quail, and clarinet for the cuckoo.
The final three movements are performed attacca, one leads directly into the next. The third “Merry gathering of peasants” is a triple meter dance movement fueled with “peasant humor” depicted by such things as entrances off the expected beat, the oboe taking a few measures to play in-sync with the violins and the second bassoon entering just momentarily to create an aura of bemusement. This dance is abruptly interrupted by an unexpected shutter in the cellos and basses, and the violins furiously unleash the fourth movement, “Tempest storm.” This movement marks the first appearance in the symphony of the piccolo, trombones, and timpani, all of which serve to heighten the intensity of the storm. Berlioz noted that Beethoven’s storm, “is no longer just a wind and rain storm; it is a frightful cataclysm, a universal deluge, the end of the world.” The storm eventually dissipates as the final movement, “Shepherds’ hymn—Happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” emerges and the clarinet and French horn usher in the principal theme. Despite the occurrence of the storm Beethoven’s symphony returns to its original peaceful landscape, and in the end poetically enforces nature’s intrinsic cyclicity.