Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 In F Major 'Pastoral'

Ludwig van Beethoven first worked on what was to become the sixth symphony in 1802 and there is evidence found in sketchbooks that he worked on the fifth symphony at the same time.  The two symphonies can hardly be more different (at least in feeling), but Beethoven usually worked on more than one composition at a time, at least early in his career.

Both symphonies also shared the same premiere date, in the same concert of December 22, 1808.  As well as the two symphonies the 4th Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasia and various other compositions of Beethoven's were played. The concert lasted roughly four hours, the theater in Vienna where it took place was unheated, and with only one rehearsal held the morning of the concert.

An account of this concert was given in the musical periodical  Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in January of 1809:
...However, as far as the execution of this academy concert is concerned, it could be considered lacking in all respects...Most noticeable, however, was the error that occurred in the last [Choral] Fantasy. The wind instruments varied the theme, which before, Beethoven had played on the piano. Now it was the oboes' turn. The clarinets--if I am not mistaken!--miscounted and set in at the same time. A peculiar mix of tones emerged; B. jumped up and tried to silence the clarinets, however, he did not succeed until he called out quite loudly and rather angrily to the orchestra: Silence! This will not do! Once more--once more! and the praised orchestra had to accommodate him and play the unfortunate Fantasy again, from the beginning--! The effect of all of these pieces on the mixed audience, and particularly of the pieces of the second section, obviously suffered from the amount and the length of the music. Moreover, it is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country...
The critical reception of any of the works in this concert never came to light as all the descriptions of it deal with the inordinate length and other happenings. As for the sixth symphony in particular, George Grove in his book Beethoven And His Nine Symphonies quotes from the Harmonicon the leading musical publication of the time, about an early performance of the work in London in about 1817:
"Opinions are much divided about its merits, but few deny that it is too long. The Andante alone is upwards of a quarter of an hour in performance, and, being a series of repetitions, might be subject to abridgment without any violation of justice either to composer or hearer."
The issue about the length of the sixth symphony caused it to be cut in some performances, a practice not thought of today. But over-length was not a complaint unknown to Beethoven. The same was said of the third symphony, the fifth, and other works.

The work gets its name Pastoral from the composer himself, for right after the dual dedication of the work to Prince von Lobkowitz and Count von Rasumovsky are the words:
Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of country life. More an expression of feeling than of painting.
The symphony is far from the first example of program music. Bach and Handel to mention but two earlier composers used subtle musical references to things that evoked feelings in the listener. Beethoven used musical references too, but he also gave each movement a brief description. Beethoven knew the risk of musical scene painting and kept it to a minimum.  Beethoven was a nature lover and was well-known around Vienna for his long walks in the countryside where he would become so preoccupied with his thoughts that he could be seen as he sang and shouted, or stood in the middle of the street and jotted down a musical idea that had come to mind. The 6th Symphony 'Pastoral' has five movements, a novelty at the time:

I. Allegro ma non troppo 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside.' - Written in sonata form, the movement's first theme is partially heard straight away, and soon the orchestra plays the full theme in full. The rest of the thematic material of the movement consists of short motifs that blend into each other seamlessly. The exposition and repeated. The development section begins with the first theme as it goes through key and dynamic changes.  Other themes are expanded and varied until the return of the main theme which signals the recapitulation. Themes are reviewed and modulate. A coda begins by playing the opening of the main theme played in the 1st violins while the 2nd violins play in contrary motion with the violas and double bass. Woodwinds play a two-note figure over a simple accompaniment by the strings. A clarinet, violins, flute and finally full orchestra play the last gentle chords of the ending of a movement that in its organic growth of small melodic motifs reflects he organic growth in nature itself.

II. Andante molto mosso 'Scene by the brook.' -  As in the first movement, this movement grows out of the seeds of small melodic motifs that are played by the 1st violins while the rest of the string section plays the murmuring depictions of a brook. The mood is placid as the music gently sways with motifs passed from instrument to instrument. The first inkling of a bird call is heard in the flute as the music grows while remaining placid. This is the movement that the London critic thought so oppressively long and repetitious! The  movement continues on its placed way until reaches a mild climax and then halts, after which the celebrated bird call imitations occur, with the Nightingale in the flute, quail in the oboe and cuckoo in the clarinet:
This is repeated, and the movement gently closes.

III. Allegro 'Merry gathering of country folk.' -  The movement begins with a scherzo of subtle humor that grows into a loud joke. The second part of the scherzo is one of wry humor as Beethoven imitates a village band with an oboe that plays a syncopated tune to a monotonous accompaniment by the violins, along with a bassoon player of such limited playing ability that his bass accompaniment consists of only three notes:
After the village band plays their tune, the tempo increases and the time signature to two in a bar in a rapid round dance. After the round dance, the entire scherzo repeats. With the end of the round dance, the scherzo makes an attempt at another repetition, but just as the village band is about to play yet again, the music segues to the next movement without pause.

IV. Allegro 'Thunder. Storm.' -  Agitated strings stir up the dust as droplets of rain as the approaching storm gathers momentum. With thunder in the timpani, whistling winds in the piccolo and a feeling of great tension the storm pelts the countryside. Beethoven has the cellos play 5 notes against 4 notes in the double bass for added rhythmic tension and confusion. The music begins to die away with distant rumbles of thunder as the music flows into the last movement without pause.

V. Allegretto 'Shepherd's song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.' -  The primary theme of this movement begins in the violins, and returns to the pastoral feeling of the first two movements, and also shares the building of a musical movement by the use of small, repeating parts. The coda reflects on the main theme a little more before it leads to the final close.

Beethoven wrote in one of his sketchbooks that, "All painting in instrumental music, if pushed too far, is a failure." The composers that used Beethoven's example of  program music as a justification to write their own did well to remember his words, and the master composers like Berlioz, Liszt and others did. If a little hint or written suggestion helps a work to be understood, so much the better.  A great musical work doesn't need a thousand-word explanation to be appreciated, for music is its own reward, its own explanation.


  1. Thank you for sharing the insight of Beethoven’s beloved symphony No. 6. This is definitely one of my favorite musics from Beethoven.

    I fortunate enough to live in Austria where Beethoven used to live. In fact, I used to live in Baden where he lived in most of the summer time. I often walked along the road ( now it is called as Beethoven Weg )where Beethoven walked a lot, which is very close to our home. Though we all didn’t have chance to meet him personally, we can still feel his passion and love on music and nature through his very music.

    Now I live in country in North of Vienna, which has a lot of farmlands and beautiful view of nature. It was always my hope or dream to make a video on Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony with the view of our land where Beethoven’s great music was created created.

    My dream came true eventually. I just finished a 10-minute video titled A Love of Nature on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, First Movement. I have uploaded it on Youtube. You may take a look at it, if you like, at

    Hope you would like it, or let me know how I can make it better. Thanks again for sharing your music knowledge with us. .

  2. I enjoyed reading your comments and experiences very much. I'm a student here in California for my music 21 had chosen to to to the symphony. I have to write about it and it's been a pleasure of mine.
    Thank you