As the piece begins, we are little more than eavesdroppers. The music of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony seems already to be in progress; we have simply stumbled within earshot. What we hear, as if from a distance, is an insouciant tune — hardly even a tune, more a fragment of a tune — hummed casually by the violins ever so quietly over a scarcely exhaled drone in the violas, cellos, and basses. After only four measures the music pauses for a breath, but already (we will understand in retrospect) we have encountered the notes and rhythms that will fuel nearly the entire first movement of the Pastoral Symphony.
What’s more, we have caught a glimpse of Beethoven’s state of mind, or at least one facet of the complicated prism of his being. He had tasted more than his fair share of disarray and anguish. As early as October 1802, when he penned his heartrending Heiligenstadt Testament, he was losing his hearing — a great adversity for anyone, but a catastrophe for a musician. In the six years since, his deafness had increased dramatically. What’s more, in March of 1808 a raging infection threatened the loss of a finger, which would have spelled further disaster for a composer attached to the keyboard. He was surrounded by a nervous political climate; Vienna had been occupied by Napoleon’s troops since November of 1805, and civic unease would erupt into violence within months of the Pastoral Symphony’s premiere. On the home front, his brother Caspar Carl had gotten married on May 25, 1806, leaving Beethoven a bit at sea in his affairs, since until then the brother had essentially served as the composer’s secretary. At the end of 1807, he found himself rejected in love, and not for the first time. Whatever confusion these circumstances engendered in Beethoven’s personal life could only have been exacerbated by his habit of constantly moving from one lodging to another. In the course of 1808 alone — the year of the Sixth Symphony — he hung his hat at no fewer than four addresses. This is the sort of biographical turmoil we imagine we hear reflected in such works as the Fifth Symphony, whose composition appears actually to have overlapped that of the Sixth.
On the other hand, this was not Beethoven’s whole life. Like many modern urbanites, he drew important sustenance from the variety and density of the city but complained incessantly about its inconveniences. In fact, he did escape to the suburban parks and countryside when he was able, and spent his summers mostly in the rural areas surrounding Vienna. On a few occasions he went farther afield, dropping in at the country residences of well-to-do friends in Hungary or visiting spas in Bohemia. “How delighted I shall be to ramble for a while through bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks,” he wrote in 1810 to Therese Malfatti (a future object of his affections), looking forward “with childish excitement” to a getaway a year after the Sixth Symphony was published. “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear.”
Beethoven was not one to speak more than necessary of his compositional methods and intentions, and he voiced the opinion that listeners were generally restricted in their experience of a work if they expected in advance to hear some image depicted. His sketches for the Pastoral Symphony are littered with little jottings relevant to such ideas: “The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations,” “All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far,” and so on. Nonetheless, there is no question that tone-painting and “situations to discover” exist bountifully in this symphony, and Beethoven clearly condoned the use of the title Pastoral in its connection even as he clung to arguments downplaying the music’s mimetic or depictive qualities. At the head of a violin part used in the first performance (and only parts were available at that time; the orchestral score was not published until 1826) we read the words “Pastoral Symphony / or / Recollection of Country Life / More an Expression of Feeling than Painting.” Each of the symphony’s five movements also carries an individual motto. Numerous compositions have been cited as prefiguring the programmatic bent of Beethoven’s Pastoral, including Haydn’s early symphonies nos. 6 (Le Matin), 7 (Le Midi), and 8 (Le Soir); a piano fantasia by Franz Jakob Freystädtler called A Spring Morning, Noon, and Night; and a five-movement symphony by Justin Heinrich Knecht titled Le Portrait Musical de la Nature. Such pieces were characteristic of the age, an epoch nursed by the back-to-nature philosophy of Rousseau and Herder.
On a more technical level, Beethoven’s Sixth evolves as an exploration of an unemphatic harmonic progression that embodies a feeling of calm. Beethoven employs this exploration in charting the broad structure of the symphony’s movements individually, and of the work as a whole. The first movement prefigures the aura of calm by drawing out harmonies over uncharacteristically long spans, spacious expanses of serene relaxation in which the ear is busied only by the surface details of fragmented melodies. So when the first movement returns to action after its opening phrase, it quickly stumbles into a sort of stuttering repetition. The same melodic fragment is repeated verbatim through ten measures, changed only by a swelling and then a diminishing of volume, with the bassoons reinforcing the texture at the loudest point. Similar repetitions appear elsewhere in the movement. The harmony can prove just as static as the melody. In fact, the first movement is practically devoid of dissonance—the spice of harmony—and even minor chords are nearly banished. Like a good recreation director at a summer retreat, Beethoven is forcing his audience to relax. The proceedings do not grow bland, however, thanks in part to the composer’s ingenious use of rhythmic dissonance, with conflicting groups of two and three notes overlapping in the same spaces of time.
The bucolic spirit of the opening movement continues in the second, the “Scene by the brook,” and the sense of calm grows ever more still. Beethoven’s walking tempo, but with much motion, proves perfect for depicting the gurgling monotony of the brook, which the composer generally assigns to the second violins, violas, and cellos, murmuring in quiet sixteenth notes, in a lilting compound meter. The melodies that arch above are exquisite, and Beethoven again subjects them to fragmentation and repetition, just as he had his themes in the first movement. The orchestration is delicate and magical throughout. All standard editions show that the cellos are to be muted, but investigation of the original manuscripts reveals that Beethoven also wished for the violins to be muted throughout this movement. The manuscript page still exists in which Beethoven inscribed a note to his copyist, near the end of the slow movement: “NB: write the word Nightingale, Quail, Cuckoo, in the first flute, in the first oboe, in the first and second clarinets, exactly as here in the score.” Later he remarked to Anton Schindler, his pupil and sometime amanuensis, that the bird allusions were “merely a joke.” Joke or not, there they stand, perfectly integrated into the texture.
The Pastoral is also unique among Beethoven’s symphonies in that it is the only one of the nine that does not adhere to the standard four-movement format. Instead, Beethoven casts it in five movements, with the last three fused into a more unified, tripartite span. The “Merry gathering” is full of peasant humor, but it’s purveyed with immense sophistication, in triple meter. Anton Schindler was not always a reliable source, but his reminiscence about the nature of this third movement does sound plausible. “Beethoven,” he wrote, “asked me if I had noticed how village musicians often played in their sleep, occasionally letting their instruments fall and keeping quite still, then waking up with a start, getting in a few vigorous blows or strokes at a venture, although usually in the right key, and then dropping to sleep again. Apparently he had tried to portray these poor people in his Pastoral Symphony.” Here we have the oboe “falling awake” and entering off the beat, taking a couple of measures to get in sync with the violins’ oom-pahs. Not many measures later, the second bassoon enters momentarily. Horns and other winds also pitch in to do their bit for the spirit of befuddlement. A middle section provides contrast of the heartiest sort before the Allegro proper returns, escalating into a riotous presto on the final page.
Cellos and basses suddenly shudder, pianissimo, and violins let loose scales in tiny staccato droplets. We have entered a new Allegro movement, and within a page the “Thunderstorm” breaks out in fortissimo fury, replete with the sounds of piccolo (good for depicting lightning), trombones, and timpani (none of which have been heard previously in this symphony). At its height, wrote Hector Berlioz in characteristically effusive fashion, “it is no longer just a wind and rain storm; it is a frightful cataclysm, a universal deluge, the end of the world.”
The storm soon passes, with yodeling music serving as a link to the concluding Allegretto. The piccolo player and timpanist sit out the rest of the piece, though the trombones, with their ecclesiastical overtones, add their voice to the finale of thanksgiving. (Gratias agimus tibi—“We give thee thanks”—the composer wrote over a sketch for this movement.) The principal theme, a folk-like tune, pervades practically the whole movement. A secondary motif sounds reminiscent of the stuttering figure from the beginning of the symphony, adding a sense of symmetry to Beethoven’s peaceable landscape.
Credit – James M. Keller