Symphony No. 6 in F Major, op. 68 ("Pastoral")

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        In 1808 Beethoven completed his sixth symphony at a time during which he was enjoying a rising popularity, albeit one without financial security. He already had written some of his most memorable and lasting works, and was a composer fully in possession of technical mastery and supreme musicality—in other words, even if he had composed no more, his place in music history would have been secure. His previous symphony, of course, is now the quintessential model of musical works that exemplify so-called economy of means, integrated technique, unified composition, or any other of a number of terms that simply mean one thing more or less: it’s all about the music—not any experience or object in the physical world. And, of course, that famous composition stems from the skilled manipulation of just a few basic ideas, wonderfully worked out. As we all know from the fifth symphony: “ta-ta-ta-taaah!” This approach to composing became the high altar for the rest of the century for those who reproached music with “stories” or about “real” things.

        And then Beethoven did something quite unexpected (being Beethoven): he wrote a symphony about something in our real world of experience! Beethoven openly described his sixth symphony as a reflection of feelings about being in the countryside, replete with birdcalls, a rainstorm, and happy peasants. He nicknamed the work, “Pastoral,” himself, and even precisely noted in the score the names of particular species of birds when he wrote imitations of their calls. However, he was intent that the listener not try to exercise his imagination too specifically, when he cautioned that the symphony was really “. . . more the expression of feelings than painting.” The feelings were good, though, and after the incredible intensity of the fifth symphony, this one is full of serenity, peaceful contentment, and the untroubled enjoyment of nature. Unique in Beethoven’s symphonies, the composer gave each of the five movements (he added an additional one to the more or less standard four) an explanatory title.

        But Beethoven being Beethoven, we shouldn’t expect loose formal construction aimed at simply illustrating bucolic scenes with pictorialism driving the cart, like so many composers later in the century—names you know! Rather, in his distinctive and typical fashion he was able to serve both the God of architectural rigor and the Mammon of story telling. That is, we experience the feelings and understand the allusions to birds, storms, and peasants, but all of it is thoroughly shaped by the same principles of tight, logical musical construction that we expect in a more abstract piece like a string quartet, or even a Bach organ fugue. It takes musical skill and inspiration of a high order to pull this off. It’s simply a “perfect classic symphony” that also happens to create a magic evocation of the out of doors.

        The first movement is notable for its relaxed exploration of clear-cut themes with little of the tension and drive that we have come to associate with the composer. The harmonies stick to relatively close and straightforward relationships, with little exploration of the remote. There are plenty of rustic little tunes to entertain us as Beethoven skillfully explores the description of the feelings that he alluded to in its title. The second movement is clearly one of his great ones, wherein the composer, as did Schubert, conjures up the brook of the title with a constant murmuring string accompaniment. Listen carefully near the end of the movement for the famous passage of the three birdcalls: one hears successively quite accurate depictions of a nightingale (flute), a thrush (oboe), and a cuckoo (clarinet). The third movement is the standard scherzo, or dance movement, and here we encounter a country festival with a country band. The middle section of this movement is noteworthy for its duple metre (rather like a march), rather than the usual triple (think of a fast waltz). Listen for a bit of Beethoven’s rough sense of humor in the bass notes of the second bassoon—a real country bandsman! The fourth movement, of course, is the storm, and Beethoven really goes after some degree of realism, here. He adds the piccolo and two trombones for the first time in this symphony, and they help to achieve the thunder, rain, lightning, and wind effects. Some listeners claim there is a rainbow at the end as the storm peacefully fades away. The last movement purports to be a “thanksgiving after the storm,” and is a bright rondo (a repeating theme). One hears a very simple, clear theme—possibly the shepherd’s tune--and after a through working out of its possibilities, the movement and the symphony ends with the theme played on a muted horn. One of Beethoven’s sunniest compositions thus ends peacefully, with a rare look into a part of his personality not often seen.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan