LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, "Pastoral"

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, probably on December 16, 1770 (he was baptized the following day), and died in Vienna on March 16, 1827. Beethoven did most of his work on the Sixth Symphony during the fall of 1807 and the early part of 1808 (a few sketches date back as far as 1803); he had sold the work to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel by September 1808. The Sixth Symphony was first performed—along with the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and several movements of the Mass in C, Opus 86, all in their premiere performances as well—on December 22, 1808, at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna. The symphony is scored for two flutes and piccolo, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones, plus timpani and strings.

The delight that Beethoven took in the world of nature is attested by countless stories from many periods of his life. When in Vienna, he never failed to take his daily walk around the ramparts, and during his summers spent outside of town he would be outdoors most of the day. The notion of treating the natural world in music seems to have occurred to him as early as 1803, when he wrote down in one of his sketchbooks a musical fragment in 12/8 time (the same meter used in the Pastoral Symphony for the “Scene at the brook”) with a note: “Murmur of the brook.” Underneath the sketch he added, “The more water, the deeper the tone.” Other musical ideas later to end up in the Sixth Symphony appear in Beethoven’s sketchbooks sporadically in 1804 and during the winter of 1806-07, when he worked out much of the thematic material for all of the movements but the second. But it wasn’t until the fall of 1807 and the spring of 1808 that he concentrated seriously on the elaboration of those sketches into a finished work; the piece was apparently completed by the summer of 1808, since on September 14 he reached an agreement with the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel for the sale of this Symphony along with four other major works.

One thing that aroused discussion of the new Symphony—a debate that lasted for decades—was the fact that Beethoven provided each movement of the work with a program, or literary guide to its meaning. His titles are really only brief images, just enough to suggest a setting. Many romantic composers and critics saw in this program a justification for the most abstruse kinds of storytelling in symphonic writing, but the program is not necessary for an understanding of the music as Beethoven finally left it, for there is nothing here that departs from expectation simply for narrative reasons.

Much more important for an understanding of Beethoven’s view than the headings of the movements is the note that Beethoven caused to be printed in the program of the first performance: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” He never intended, then, that the Symphony be considered an attempt to represent events in the real world, an objective narrative, in musical guise. Rather, this Symphony provided yet again what all of his symphonies had offered: subjective moods and impressions captured in harmony, melody, color, and the structured passage of time.

Beethoven’s sketchbooks reveal that he was working on his Fifth and Sixth symphonies at the same time; they were finished virtually together, given consecutive opus numbers (67 and 68), and premiered on the same concert (where they were actually reversed in numbering—with the Pastoral Symphony, given first on the program, identified as “No. 5”). Yet no two symphonies are less likely to be confused, even by the most casual listener—the Fifth, with its energy, tense harmonies, and powerful dramatic climaxes on the one hand, and the Sixth, with its smiling and sunny air of relaxation and joy on the other. Nothing shows more clearly the range of Beethoven’s work than these two masterpieces, twins in their gestation: not identical, but fraternal twins of strongly differentiated characters. Popular biographies of Beethoven tend to emphasize the heaven storming, heroic works of the middle period (the Eroica and Fifth symphonies, the Egmont Overture, the Emperor Concerto, the Razumovsky String Quartets, the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas) at the expense of other aspects of his art. On the other hand, some critics of a “neoclassical” orientation claim to find the even-numbered symphonies including the Pastoral to be more successful than the overtly dramatic works. Both views are equally one-sided and give a blinkered representation of Beethoven—his art embraces both elements and more, as is clear from the intertwining conception and composition of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

Even in works of such contrasting character, Beethoven’s concern for balance and for carefully articulated musical architecture remains evident, though the means by which he achieves these ends are quite different. The Fifth Symphony deals in harmonic tensions—dissonant diminished-seventh and augmented-sixth chords that color the mood almost throughout.

The harmonic character of the Sixth Symphony is altogether more relaxed. Beethoven builds his extensive musical plan on the very simplest harmonies, on the chord relations that harmony students learn in the first few days of the course—tonic, dominant, and subdominant. The Symphony revels in major triads from the very beginning, and the diminished-seventh chord is withheld until the “thunderstorm” of the fourth movement.

As in the Fifth Symphony, the first movement derives all its melodic ideas from the very beginning of the work, breaking out at least four motives from the opening theme and repeating them in a leisurely way that implies no hurry to get anywhere. For all the apparent ease, our course through the movement is perfectly balanced with slow swings from tonic to dominant and back or phrases reiterating a single chord, then jumping to another, distant chord for more repetition. The fact that all this sheer repetition does not lead to fatigue or exasperation on the listener’s part is tribute to Beethoven’s carefully planned and varied orchestral colors and textures. Indeed, George Grove remarked in his study of this Symphony that Beethoven “is steeped in Nature itself; and when the sameness of woods, fields, and streams can be distasteful, then will the Pastoral Symphony weary its hearers.”

One idea that does not appear at the very beginning but grows in importance throughout is a little figure of repeated notes in triplets first heard as a punctuation in clarinets and bassoons. As the movement progresses, that triplet rhythm insinuates itself more and more into the musical fabric until, by the beginning of the recapitulation, it is running along in counterpoint to the themes heard at the outset, and just before the close of the movement, the solo clarinet takes off on triplet arpeggios in what is virtually a cadenza.

The second movement is richly but delicately scored, with two muted solo cellos providing a background murmur along with second violins and violas, while the first violins and woodwinds embellish the melodic flow with a rich array of turns and trills. We could not miss the bucolic leisure of this Andante even if Beethoven had never provided a title for the movement. The gentle running of water, bird song, soft breezes, and rustling leaves are all implicit in this music. Beethoven is in no hurry to get through it, yet his sense of architectural balance remains engaged. Even the one explicitly “programmatic” passage—the song of nightingale, quail, and cuckoo labeled as such in the flute, oboe, and clarinet just before the end of the movement—fits perfectly well as a purely musical passage (how many real birds sing in classical, four-measure phrases?).

Only twice in Beethoven’s symphonic output did he link the movements of a symphony so that they would be performed without a break. Significantly, this happened in two symphonies composed almost simultaneously, the Fifth and the Sixth. The form-breaking elements of the Pastoral Symphony do not depend on the composer’s program to make sense: the scherzo, a real dance movement in F major, is interrupted just at its last chord by a dramatic Allegro in F minor. The violence of that extended passage gradually dies down and returns to the major mode for the final passage of rustic simplicity, a release from the tension of the Allegro whether or not one thinks of it as “grateful feelings after the storm.” In both symphonies the transition moves from harmonic darkness and tension to the light of a major key established at the beginning of a new movement.

All three movements are filled with felicitous touches. The dance has a delightfully quirky offbeat strain for solo oboe, with the occasional appearance of a bassoon accompaniment consisting of three notes. This is supposed to be an intentional caricature of a village band that Beethoven encountered at a tavern near Mödling. The storm is picturesquely scored, providing a veritable quarry of techniques that were mined by composers for decades. Beethoven withheld his big orchestral guns to this point. The trumpets do not play in the Symphony until the middle of the third movement. Trombones and timpani appear for the first time (the timpani, in fact, play only here) in the fourth, and the piccolo joins in at the height of the storm.

As the storm ends, a ranz des vaches or Swiss herdsman’s song introduces the final major key movement and the “hymn of thanksgiving.” The ranz des vaches, a melody borrowed by Beethoven for this spot, unmistakably identifies the setting in a world of pastoral simplicity. Its use here was an afterthought on the composer’s part, but it was a highly appropriate one, since the first theme of the movement proper (heard in the violins) is part of the same family group–an arpeggiation of the major triad in a different position. Thus, once more, an element that might be labeled “programmatic” can be seen to nestle snugly and fittingly into what musicologist Donald Tovey has called “a perfect classical symphony.” —© Steven Ledbetter