Written before programmatic music was officially defined in its own right, Beethoven’s glorious Pastoral symphony stood alone as a comprehensive music portrait of all that is wonderful about nature and the great outdoors.
Containing (rather unconventionally) five movements with each one carrying their own evocative title to provide some guidance to the listener, this 6th symphony was initially sketched out in 1802 and finally completed 6 years later in 1808.
Known as a lover of nature who spent a lot of his time walking alone in the countryside, Beethoven wrote the work alongside his considerably more fiery 5th (Fate) symphony.
The opening movement in the key of F major depicts the composer’s cheerful feelings upon arrival in rural surroundings; the opening motif is used extensively – developed and repeated in equal measure whilst the tone is playful yet peaceful at the same time. The music brims with optimism and warm heartedness and it’s easy to imagine the pastoral landscape:- birds singing, the wind blowing gently through the trees, the beauty of the unspoiled landscape. Reflecting the pure, undiluted essence of nature, a section beginning at 2.39 builds gradually, almost hypnotically to a rich tapestry of clean orchestral textures, its driving rhythmical intensity suggesting the infinite cycles of life itself. Although this dies away briefly (perhaps in a wintry end-of-cycle fashion, renewal quickly follows when it returns, transposed into a higher key at 3.26.
At 5.23 the main theme returns and is sung from the rooftops with gusto. Beethoven switches things around at 7.17 with a brief counterpoint section and proceeds to tidy up loose ends – the scenery perhaps suggests the farmer harvesting the fields as the day winds slowly toward its conclusion. Chirping woodwinds surely represent the birds in the trees settling down for the evening whilst Beethoven closes the opening movement with a series of strong and assertive F major chords which gave way to more gentle lingering ones.
The 2nd movement, in the key of Bb major, is entitled “Scene by the brook” and offers up a very bucolic scene in which we can certainly imagine a bubbling stream, represented in the score by divided cellos playing on muted instruments to achieve the desired effect of flowing water. There is no tension or aggression of any kind in this music – everything is unfolding exactly as it should be.
The bassoon introduces a new motif at 2.29 which we will hear again interwoven throughout this 2nd movement in different guises. Beethoven allows a languorous sigh to creep in at 6.40 which is suggestive of reminiscence, but the effect is fleeting, and good humour is restored quickly.
Toward the closing bars of the movement at 10.23, there is a cadenza for woodwind instruments in which Beethoven incorporated bird calls into the manuscript, using the flute for a nightingale, an oboe for a quail and two clarinets for a cuckoo. It was a highly innovative and novel idea at the time which went on to inspire countless future composers; the wonderful thing about it is that it just fits perfectly and doesn’t sound at all out of place in the music. Another gentle close follows.
Returning to the home key of F major in the final movement, Beethoven depicts the merry gathering of country folk. This is a folk dance in ¾ time which detects the innocent and simple pleasures enjoyed by the assembled revellers. There is even time for Beethoven to insert a little musical joke here. To more accurately reflect the probable amateur status of the country musicians, the bassoon player is heard to supposedly come in at the wrong point, despite being given a pretty simple line to play. The inspiration for this 3rd movement is alleged to have arrived when the composer stopped for a rest in some alpine village, taking time out to sit and observe the scenes of the local villagers.
One or two wrong notes are heard and all of a sudden, the pace quickens. A sudden change of tone and the villagers scatter – we are into the 4th movement, marked Gewitter.
An unexpected sense of unease is illustrated by trembling low strings (0.01) – a storm is on the way. There then follows what must be the greatest musical sketch of a thunderstorm ever written. Furious crashing thunder (0.27) is audibly represented by rolling timpani, lashing sheets of rain by vibrating, shimmering strings instruments (0.33.) You can almost see the violent flashes of lightning if you close your eyes.
There is a sense of the god-like wrath of unbridled nature contained within these notes – the crepuscular scratching of the double basses and cellos sounding like some frightening spectral of the netherworld. The high point of the storm is reached at 2.19; as the drama slowly recedes, there is still time for distant flashes of lightning on the horizon to spark their last (3.00.)
After the storm has passed, we enter the landscape which is once again calm and serene. We can audibly hear the sun come out once again at 3.13.
Moving imperceptibly into the 5th and final movement with our old friend the cuckoo heralding the return of the natural order, a grateful shepherd offers his thanks via his horn in the form of a traditional mountain call. A lullaby-like melody is introduced at 0.17 which is bathed in warmth and contentment; this is an iconic Beethoven moment – the sense that humanity and goodwill can always conquer uncertainty and darkness. Initially recited by strings, the shepherd’s melody is played out on a yet grander scale against a backdrop of glimmering strings (0.47) which seem to represent the rays of sunlight which are now coming through once again, whilst the horn is appropriately given the shepherd’s call. The message is that everything is at peace again and there is a palpable sense of gratitude at this return to serenity.
The shepherd’s call pervades at various points throughout this final movement and is given varying forms of musical treatment, ultimately serving as a unifying clarion call which binds everything together. Concluding with a deeply satisfying close in the home key of F major, this marvellous symphony comes to an end and we are left with those indelible images of the Viennese countryside and of simpler times.