Beethoven Symphony no. 6 in F, op. 68 ‘Pastoral’

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, or as below with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique under Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(cover image by Terry Tan De Hao)

Okay, all you lovers of a good subtitle, here we are with the ‘Pastoral’ symphony, the work that, at least to me, defined what the word means in musical terms.

This symphony is, I believe, the first (at least of the 19th century) to be in five movements. Haydn’s 60th is in six movements, but it’s basically incidental music, and there were other serenades or suites that would have been as many movements, give or take, but aside from that, I don’t know of any real symphony before this one in five movements that functions as true symphony rather than a suite or incidental music of some kind. But I could be wrong.

Schumann’s third is in five movements, as was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which appeared on the blog already more than two years ago. Even by the time of Mahler, though, the five-movement symphony was by no means common.

Beethoven’s sixth was inspired, or at least influenced, by the composer’s love of nature. Maybe not all symphonists are this way, but Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler certainly loved their country strolls and composing cottages (perhaps only Mahler for that last one). Its composition began as early as 1802, and was ultimately composed alongside its more volcanic sibling, the fifth symphony, which even people who don’t like classical music can identify.

The piece has five movements, listed either with their tempo markings, or with the programmatic subtitles, which the composer actually gave to this pieceThey are as follows, swiped from Wikipedia:

German title

Translation

Tempo marking

Key

I. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande

Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside

Allegro ma non troppo

F major

II. Szene am Bach

Scene by the brook

Andante molto mosso

B major

III. Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute

Merry gathering of country folk

Allegro

F major

IV. Gewitter, Sturm

Thunder. Storm

Allegro

F minor

V. Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm

Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

Allegretto

F major

I kept the key because I think it’s a good reference to see how the work is laid out. We could talk about that, and how the work has so many of the things we’d expect: the use of sonata form (first and second movements) with plentiful motifs, the third movement scherzo, the sonata-rondo form of the finale, but I’d like to take an opportunity to do something slightly different here.

Arguably, this work could have been included in the Symphonic Poem series I did like three years ago. Unlike the subtitles attributed to some of Beethoven’s works, or the programmatic content (like from Mahler) that was later removed, Beethoven fully intended this to be a programmatic work, and I think we can do the piece justice by discussing it in this manner. (Of course, if you want to look at the structure and how the two sonata form movements are developed and built, or ditto with the finale, it can be a rewarding little study in Beethoven’s genius, but I think the programmatic, really even cinematic, angle makes this piece especially approachable.)

When you think of ‘morning’ pieces or melodies, Grieg’s famous setting comes to mind, but Beethoven did it in a similar fashion, and much earlier. The strings are almost like the first glimmering rays of light that sneak through the blinds and begin to wake a bleary sleeper. Of course, Beethoven’s program notes talk about a figurative awakening, but it’s a similar idea, isn’t it? Have you ever arrived at a lake house, the beach, your favorite vacation spot, and been flooded with memories or emotion, the smell of the sea air, or a favorite vista from a balcony? Can you hear Beethoven’s arrival in his favorite countryside spot, and the warm feelings, the excitement, that go with it? The F major key is warm and sunny, and the music is nearly giddy at times.

If you wanted to get really speculative, you could contrast this with the fire of the fifth symphony, that the beginning of the sixth is a quiet trip away from stressful city life. You could also be really programmatic and link all five movements together to form a narrative, but we only see direct evidence of that later.

The second movement is a specific scene, ‘by the brook.’ These first two movements are (at least in Rattle’s reading) of almost exactly equal length, but this second sonata-form movement isn’t really a second first-movement, but maybe more closely akin to a slow movement, as it’s marked Andante molto mosso. It begins equally subtly, like water trickling around rocks and tree roots in a babbling brook. The music moves and develops the same way the flow of water quickens in narrower passages or slows down at certain points. It breathes and moves, almost waltz-like at points. In certain passages, woodwinds pick up the themes that the strings have been presenting, but it’s not until the end that they really get to show off, with “a cadenza for woodwind instruments that imitates birdcalls.” The score is actually marked with which bird each instrument represents: nightingale for the flute, oboe plays the quail, and clarinets play the cuckoo. Overall, it is a very subdued, relaxing movement.

The third movement scherzo is unsurprisingly quite different. It shows us a ‘Merry gathering of country folk,’ here focusing less on the surroundings and nature, and more on the people, a specific atmosphere. It isn’t raucous, at least not at first, but hits some more exciting points here and there, with a woodwind-focused trio that gets back to a bit of the sound of the birdcalls in the previous movement. This one, though, is sort of hurriedly truncated. A third appearance of the scherzo is abbreviated and interrupting it is a brief allegro in F minor, depicting a “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.” Can you hear it?

Even with the addition of the stormy fourth movement, these two movements together are still shorter than any other in the symphony. This fourth movement functions as a sort of long introduction to the finale, or as an aside between the third and fifth movements, and it leads directly to the finale. It’s an obvious standout from the otherwise bucolic, relatively light disposition of the work, but very well placed.

The finale, then, emerges right from this storm, which passes in much the same way as it appeared. The subtitle for this movement mentions a shepherd’s song, and ‘cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.’ Wiki tells us that:

Like many classical finales, this movement emphasizes a symmetrical eight-bar theme, in this case representing the shepherds’ song of thanksgiving.

For what it’s worth this finale is in sonata-rondo form.

So we see some programmatic connection to the previous two movements. The scherzo and its group of townspeople was interrupted by a storm, but once it passes, people feel relieved and the warmly, relaxing pastoral atmosphere returns.

There’s overall such a sense of effortless lyricism to the entire piece, really. Beethoven also directly mentions ‘cheerful feelings’ in both the first and final movements, giving us a sense that we’ve returned to somewhere familiar and comfortable after this trek through the countryside. We’re also back in F major.

Is it easy to hear these programmatic elements? It’s one of the earliest, most direct communications of programmatic elements in music. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides wouldn’t come until decades later, and it’s on a much smaller scale than Beethoven’s symphony here.

Well, that’s that for Beethoven for a (very) little while, but he’ll be back in just a few weeks with some other composers between now and then, so please do stay tuned, and thank you very much for reading.

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