Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

When you think of Ludwig van Beethoven, chances are you hear the infamous pulses of his fiery Fifth Symphony. But did you know that the symphony he composed simultaneously with the Fifth is equally brilliant? Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, referred to as the Pastoral Symphony, is an immaculate offering of sound and color. Described by Beethoven himself as being “more the expression of feeling than painting”, the Pastoral Symphony is a moving tribute to the beauty of nature which served as one of Beethoven’s greatest muses during his life as a composer. Spending much of his free time walking in the countryside surrounding Vienna, Beethoven found a peace in nature which stabilized and nourished his passionate soul.

Composition of the Pastoral Symphony was undertaken in 1802, and the work would take another six years to reach completion. It was debuted at a concert taking place at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Musicologist Frank D’Accone maintains that the programmatic ideas featured in the symphony (bird song, thunder, a shepherd’s pipe, and the flowing of a stream) were lifted by Beethoven from Justin Heinrich Knecht’s 1784 musical work “Le Portrait musical de la Nature ou Grande Symphonie”.

The Pastoral Symphony is scored for full orchestra, and makes use of trumpet, timpani, trombone, and piccolo in specific movements. The Symphony begins with the Allegro ma non troppo, in which the composer arrives in the country amidst an atmosphere of cheerful melodies. Set in 2/4 meter and sonata form throughout, each musical theme is developed to its greatest potential by Beethoven. The orchestral texture is thickened by the composer’s reliance on short, repeating motifs.

The first movement ends in comfort and the second (Andante molto mosso) begins with speed, mimicking the fast flow of a stream by way of a motif in the string section. Also in sonata form, the second movement is delivered in 12/8 meter in the key of B♭ major. The cello section is split in their duties during this movement, with many players assisting the double basses in jubilant pizzicato notes while only two cellists stay with the babbling brook. This movement is unique within the context of the work because it delivers a cluster of bird calls rendered in a woodwind cadenza towards its end. Interestingly, Beethoven was very specific about which birds were to be imitated by which instruments: the flute plays the song of the nightingale, the oboe provides the somber notes of the quail, and two clarinets warble the jubilant sounds of a cuckoo or two.

After a refreshing chorus of birdsong, movement three (Allegro) unfolds. A scherzo in 3/4 time, this country folk dance returns us to the main key of F major to revel and frolic amongst the trees. The doubling of the trio movement makes this an unusual, but memorable scherzo. Another odd choice on Beethoven’s part was to prematurely end the appearance of the third scherzo theme. Beethoven forever changed how scherzi would be composed through the creativity he displayed within this movement. As the tempo builds in excitement and vitesse, the movement suddenly stops without warning. We are catapulted immediately into the fourth movement with no time to prepare ourselves as a thunderstorm threatens in the distance.

Beethoven outdoes himself in this fourth movement (which bears the same name as the third) by using a 4/4 meter in F minor to depict a lightning shower of violent proportions. What starts as a few drops of rain quickly turns into an awe-inspiring musical downpour. After the storm passes, Beethoven borrows from Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor of 1787. He accomplishes this by simmering a stormy preface into a rich final movement of serenity.

The finale of this symphony (Allegretto) is in F major and features a meter of 6/8 time. Capitalizing on sonata rondo form, in which the main theme appears in the tonic key at the beginning of the development as well as the exposition and the recapitulation, the finale presents a symmetrical eight-bar theme to conjure the sounds of a shepherds’ thanksgiving song. The coda is soft at first, but soon grows to encompass the entire orchestra. The violin section is incredibly active in this final section, playing rapid triplet tremolo to increase the emotional tension. There comes a moment in every great piece of music that is utterly unforgettable, and for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony this moment occurs during the final passages of the coda. The prayer-like quality of this passage culminates in two victorious F-chords, summarizing the majesty of nature like no one else could. Beethoven found his gentle side in nature, and we hope you enjoy your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony at our Trip to the Country concert!

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