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Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, "Pastoral"

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Leonidas Kavakos, violin, plays Brahms Nov. 17 - 19, 2011
© Paul Horsley

Initial sketches for the Sixth Symphony are found as early as 1803, among the sketches for the "Eroica" Symphony. But the actual composition of the piece took place in 1808, simultaneously with that of the Fifth; like the Fifth, it was dedicated to Beethoven's principal patrons of the time, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky. Both symphonies received first performances late that year in Vienna, at one of the famous "marathon" concerts that were common to the period. In addition to the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the four-hour (!) concert included the Fourth Piano Concerto, miscellaneous hymns and arias, a movement from the Mass in C, a piano improvisation by Beethoven himself, and the "Choral" Fantasy. 

"There we sat," wrote the composer Friedrich Reichardt, who was in attendance, "in the bitterest cold, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing-and still more of a loud thing. ... Poor Beethoven, who from this concert was having the first and only scant profit that he could find in a whole year, had found much opposition and little support in the rehearsals and performance." This most famous of concerts was, according to several reports, seriously under-rehearsed; as a result its success was not unequivocal.      

In writing a programmatic symphony that evoked sounds and moods of the countryside, Beethoven was drawing upon a well-established genre. Scholars have unearthed hundreds of 18th-century symphonies, mainly from Bohemia and Austria, that are pictorial or programmatic, and doubtless Beethoven was familiar with a number of these - not just the oft-cited symphony of Justin Heinrich Knecht called Le Portrait musical de la nature (whose movement titles Beethoven appears virtually to have plagiarized for his own symphony) or Dittersdorf's Metamorphosis symphonies based on Ovid, but probably others as well. Nevertheless it required Beethoven's "golden touch" to catapult the genre of program symphony into the 19th century and beyond.

But Beethoven cautioned us against too literal a "reading" of the Sixth Symphony. "Carried too far," he scribbled into his sketch-book for the piece, "all ‘painting' in instrumental music will fail." Another of these curious sketch-book inscriptions characterizes the Sixth as "a matter more of feelings than of painting in sounds." Many commentators have tried to downplay the importance of the composer's own movement-titles - under a mistaken late-19th-century notion that "program" music is somehow inferior to "absolute" music. Yet for all Beethoven's denial of a detailed program for the Sixth, in the end he seems to have created a set of images that are so vivid that one finds them impossible to ignore. 

Pastoral Symphony-or Recollections of Country Life, reads the composer's title for the Sixth Symphony. Clearly Beethoven's passionate love for the outdoors is reflected in the piece; for evidence one need look no further than the movement titles. Granted, one can listen happily to the "Pastoral" without a thought to these titles-for the piece contains some of Beethoven's most penetratingly beautiful music. But who can hear the "Tempest" movement and mistake it for anything other than a violent thunderstorm? Who could listen to the woodwind solos at the end of the "Scene by the brook" without imagining birdcalls?

Beethoven's friend Anton Schindler recounts an affecting story (which he might have made up, as he did many of the things he wrote) about a walk he took with the composer in April 1823, in the countryside around Vienna: "Passing through the pleasant meadow-valley between Heiligenstadt and Grinzing, which is traversed by a gently murmuring brook that hurries down from a nearby mountain and is bordered with high elms, Beethoven repeatedly stopped and let his glances roam, full of happiness, over the glorious landscape. ... ‘Here I composed the Scene by the brook,' Beethoven said, ‘and the yellowhammers up there, the quails, nightingales, and cuckoos around about, composed with me.' "

The Sixth is in five movements-atypical for a Classical symphony but not unusual for a programmatic one. The Allegro, ma non troppo, perhaps the least "pictorial" movement of the Symphony, nevertheless puts the listener in a pastoral frame of mind from the outset - with its drone bass and its "strolling" theme. It features two main subjects and two closing themes; the extraordinary development section, based primarily on a fragmented variant of the opening subject, revels in a sort of incessant repetition aimed, perhaps, at evoking the feeling of taking a very long walk. The Andante molto mosso, a set of free variations on a theme, serves as the Symphony's slow movement. In the manuscript score Beethoven has actually labeled the birdcalls mentioned above: "Nightingale" for the flute passage, "Quail" for the oboe solo, and "Cuckoo" for the clarinet.

The central Allegro - Presto is a scherzo, lively and full of piping country-dances; what should become the end of the movement leads directly into the turbulent Allegro, with its torrential gusts and crashing thunder. "It is no longer merely a wind and rainstorm," writes Berlioz, waxing apocalyptic, "it is a frightful cataclysm, the universal deluge, the end of the world." Again the music continues without pause into the next movement (Allegretto), which begins with the shepherd's "yodel" (clarinet) and ends with a richly scored hymn of thanksgiving that echoes Haydn's Seasons finale of a decade before - the pious gratitude of a simple farmer who knows that even the thunderstorm's violence is an essential part of nature's cycle.