Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

One biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades, his stormy love affairs and famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output. He mastered and transformed the musical forms of his day, extending the range of expression available to composers. Beethoven was no Mozart-like prodigy, although in his teens he was composing and playing in orchestras. But by his twenties – after studies with Franz Josef Haydn and Antonio Salieri – both his compositions and piano playing had attracted considerable attention. Around the age of thirty, Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness. Soon thereafter began his “middle” period, which included groundbreaking works like the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new depth and freedom.

Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”

Composed: 1807-08
Duration: 42 minutes
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings

Beethoven’s love of the countryside is well-known. He would take long walks through the hills and woods outside Vienna, frequently with one of his famed sketchbooks in hand. As early as 1803, five years before the “Pastoral” Symphony was completed, Beethoven wrote down a short musical idea that he called “murmur of the brook,” a precursor of the Symphony’s second movement. Most of the work on the “Pastoral” was done, however, during the fall of 1807 and early 1808.

The concept of program music, or music that attempts to depict some external action or idea, was hardly new in Beethoven’s time. Most of us are well acquainted with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1725), with its birdcalls, spring storms, drunkenness, shepherds’ piping and hunting party. Various animals also make appearances in Franz Josef Haydn’s The Creation (1798) – not to mention the moment of creation itself – and a hailstorm erupts during George Frederick Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (1738), in which the parting of the Red Sea is also depicted.

But Beethoven’s approach in the “Pastoral” Symphony is subtly different. Yes, there are bits of musical picture-painting in the work – the birdsongs in the second movement, the village band in the third, and the fourth movement’s thunderstorm. But Beethoven’s work is, in the composer’s own words, “more an expression of feeling than painting.” He put it even more strongly in one of his sketchbooks: “All painting in instrumental music, if pushed too far, is a failure.”

Each of the symphony’s five movements has a descriptive title attached to it. Beethoven had contemplated more detailed descriptions, but decided against them, saying “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the author without a lot of titles.” Many of the titles, by the way, as well as the unusual five-movement form, were adapted from an almost forgotten symphony of the 1780s for 15 instruments, Le Portrait musical de la nature by Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817).

The gentle opening of the first movement, “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country,” with the quiet drone in the cellos and violas supporting the violins in the first phrase of what becomes the movement’s main theme, truly sounds like an awakening (and couldn’t be more of a contrast with the fiery opening of the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony). That opening theme recurs again and again, with subtle orchestral coloration and hardly a hint of dissonance. The ease of this music, the timeless and contented sense of joy, is enhanced by the repetitions of the development section, in which a short figure is repeated no fewer than 72 times, with four different starting notes, in what composer Robert Simpson has aptly described as “sublime monotony.”

Rolling eighth and sixteenth notes evoke the flowing of water in the second movement, “Scene by the Brook.” Once again a lazy, peaceful and lovely monotony rules. Towards the end of the movement, as a sort of cadenza, we hear birdcalls from the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (two clarinets in unison). By contrast, the third movement, “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” is a raucous affair. Beethoven had long been charmed by the semi-professional, semi-competent village bands (which Mozart also memorably lampooned in his Musical Joke, K. 522 of 1787) he had heard in places like the Tavern of the Three Ravens just outside Vienna. He calls such players to mind in the movement’s trio section: the oboe enters a beat later than it should, the clarinet and horn follow the oboe’s lead and also miss their entrance slightly, and the bassoon, seeming to drowse a bit, awakens long enough to play its simple three-note phrase.

After a couple of times through this music, the mood turns dark and suspenseful as the “Thunderstorm” arrives. Beethoven saves some of his orchestral forces – piccolo, trombones and timpani – for the furious eruption of the storm, with its gusting winds, thunder and lightning. After settling in for a few minutes of tumult, the storm gradually breaks and, over a bagpipe-like drone in the strings, solo clarinet and horn announce with short yodel-like phrases the final movement’s “Shepherd’s Song: Happy and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.” The movement’s main theme, said to be derived from a Swiss folk song, is hymn-like and returns to the grace and calm of the opening two movements. After a final joyous outburst from the orchestra, the symphony closes contentedly.

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