Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven did most of the work on his Symphony No. 6 during the time he was completing the Fifth Symphony – late 1807 into early 1808 – and in many ways, it is a walk down the sunny side of the same street. Bright and relaxed where the Fifth is dark and driven, the Sixth is nonetheless just as miraculously voiced and almost as tightly constructed.
There were precedents for a programmatic “Pastoral” such as this, particularly Le Portrait musical de la nature, a symphony of five similarly titled movements composed in 1784 by the music director for the Stuttgart court, Justin Heinrich Knecht. Beethoven, however, indicated that his intentions were more “an expression of feeling than of description.”
Years later, Beethoven took his friend and often unreliable biographer Anton Schindler for a walk in the country outside Vienna. “Here it was that I composed the ‘Scene by the Brook’ and the yellow buntings overhead, the quails, the nightingales, and the cuckoos composed with me,” Beethoven said. In the instrumental cadenza at the close of the “Scene by the Brook,” Beethoven actually marks the birdsongs in the score – the nightingale is the flute, the quail is the oboe, and the two unison clarinets represent the cuckoo. The yellow bunting is not labeled, but Beethoven indicated to Schindler its more important fluttering figure, appearing first in the flute.
The brook itself rolls along gently in the middle strings, and there are numerous other points of explicit scene painting. The insouciantly untutored musicians in the “Merry Gathering of Country Folk” depict the house band of Croatian folk musicians of a tavern named At the Three Ravens. Musical storms became a Romantic cliché, though few hit with the impact of Beethoven’s, despite the steady enlargement of both harmonic and instrumental palettes. Beethoven saves the timpani, trombones, and piccolo for this moment, as well as the minor side of the home key and unstable harmonies such as diminished chords.
So you can enjoy the day in Beethoven’s countryside without feeling guilty that you are ignoring the finer points of the purely musical argument. The birdsongs are not merely illustrative detail, but are musically pertinent as well, for example, and the mellow radiance of the finale cloaks the structure of a cogent sonata form. In Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, appreciation of the lovingly detailed scenery and expressed feelings, as well as their abstract underpinnings, are one and the same, since Beethoven made them completely interactive. To notice a programmatic detail in this sonic country is also to observe a twist in the structural logic. Trust the feelings that Beethoven worked so hard to evoke. — John Henken