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Symphony No 6 in F major 'Pastoral', Op 68
summer 1807

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Movement 1: Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Szene am Bach: Andante molto mosso
Movement 3: Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute: Allegro
Movement 4: Donner – Sturm: Allegro
Movement 5: Hirtengesang 'Frohe, dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm': Allegretto

Symphony No 6 in F major 'Pastoral', Op 68
‘Recollections of country life, more the expression of feelings than painting’ was Beethoven’s disclaimer on the title-page of the Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’. However, no one hearing the storm movement interpolated between the scherzo and finale could be in any doubt as to what was being depicted. This was by no means the first great work to be inspired by nature and the countryside: if nothing else, Beethoven had before him the example of Haydn’s two late oratorios—The Creation, with its evocations of bird, insect and animal life, and The Seasons, with its own vivid summer storm—but Beethoven’s was nevertheless a pioneering attempt to forge the sounds and moods of nature into a grand symphonic design.

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is a work that proceeds in large waves of sound, with the pace of harmonic change deliberately unhurried, even in developmental sections, and with very little use of the minor. As a consequence of Beethoven’s broad brush-strokes, and to avoid repetition on a large scale, the reprises and recapitulations during the course of the work are elaborately varied; and in this scheme of things the function of the storm is to provide a much-needed source of symphonic tension.

Almost everything in the broadly paced opening movement derives from its initial halting violin phrases, played above a rustic, drone-like bare fifth on violins and cellos. Only the principal second subject, presented in the form of a gradual textural crescendo, provides any real thematic contrast, though even this is short-lived. In the coda the village-band takes over, in the shape of a clarinet solo with a ‘rocking’ bassoon accompaniment.

Just as the opening movement is largely bereft of dramatic incident, so the gently undulating sound of the stream runs almost uninterruptedly through the slow movement. Towards the end, the gurgling of the water pauses for a moment while Beethoven introduces the sounds of nightingale, quail and cuckoo, as portrayed by flute, oboe and clarinets, respectively. Those more literal descriptions of individual bird-calls had been anticipated in the main body of the piece—not least, by the violin trills and ‘chirping’ repeated notes at the approach to the recapitulation.

The scherzo and trio are through-composed—so much so that it is difficult to define where one section ends and the next begins. What we may perceive as the trio is the charmingly syncopated oboe melody, with a bassoon accompaniment restricted throughout to only three notes, as though the rustic player from the coda of the first movement were putting in another appearance. Just as Beethoven seems on the verge of bringing back the scherzo, the pace accelerates, the metre changes, and he introduces instead a ‘stamping’ dance conjuring up a Breughelesque vision of peasants making merry. During the final reprise of the scherzo, the revelries become more frenzied, until at their climax the music is interrupted in dramatic fashion by the sound of the approaching storm.

Beethoven’s masterstroke is to begin his storm pianissimo, with a sense of pent-up tension, before the thunder unleashes its violence in earnest. Twice the storm approaches and recedes, with the shrill sound of the piccolo adding pungency to the second climax. As the rumble of thunder at last dies away, the ‘raindrop’ patter of the second violins’ opening bars is transmuted into a broad hymn-like phrase in the major—an offering of thanksgiving, before a gentle rising scale on the flute leads directly into the finale.

The flute’s scale lands the music firmly on the key of C major, and it is in that key that the clarinet gives out a preliminary version of the finale’s main theme, while the violas provide a pastoral drone on their two lowest open strings. As the clarinet’s melody is taken over by the horn, Beethoven superimposes a second drone effect on the cellos, this time anchored on the home note of F. As a result, dominant and tonic harmonies are momentarily sounded together, producing an effect which sets the finale in motion in an atmosphere of rustic charm. The entire symphony, indeed, is one that seems to grow upwards, from its bass-line; and not for nothing does an early sketch for the slow movement, bearing the title of Murmeln der Bäche (‘Murmuring of the brooks’), contain the remark: ‘The bigger the brook, the deeper the sound.’

from notes by Misha Donat © 2007

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