Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Beethoven Symphony No. 6

The Pastoral Symphony: Beethoven's hymn to nature

‘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’s declaration in a letter from 1810 assumes particular poignancy when we realize the deaf composer could no longer experience that ‘echo’ himself. Seven years earlier, at age 32, he had confessed: ‘What a humiliation when someone standing near me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me almost to despair; a little more and I would have ended my life.’ This cry from the heart came in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, a famous unsent letter to his brothers in which he revealed his hearing loss.

‘Indispesible’ country life

Beethoven took walks most afternoons in Vienna’s parks and in the large field just outside the city walls. For part of each year he moved to a suburban village such as Heiligenstadt or retreated to a spa. (‘To stay in the city in summer is torture for me,’ he once remarked.) As he wandered about he would not only soak in nature but also compose. While he worked out his most detailed ideas for compositions in large-format sketchbooks at home, he typically carried around small pocketbooks as well. The artist August von Kloeber undertook a portrait of the composer in 1818 and later recalled observing Beethoven strolling around Mödling: ‘It was most interesting to see him, a sheet of music paper and a stump of pencil in his hand, stop often as though listening, and then write a few notes on the paper.’

Being amidst nature was crucial to Beethoven’s existence. In the summer of 1809, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Vienna for the second time in four years, he was unable to leave the city and wrote to his publisher: ‘I still cannot enjoy life in the country, which is so indispensable for me.’ Booming cannon fire caused particular distress to his ears. By the following May he was eagerly anticipating leaving Vienna: ‘How delighted I will be to ramble for a while through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks.’

Unidentical twins: the Fifth and Sixth symphonies

Beethoven communing with birds and flowers may seem at odds with the eccentric genius shaking his fist at fate, but the two images are complementary sides of his personality, traits he powerfully evoked in the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. These works are so different in many respects as to make one even suspect they were born of different composers. Yet we can think of them as twins, albeit unidentical ones: their genesis, premieres, publication as Opus 67 and 68, shared dedicatees (Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky), and musical features are intimately bound together.

Making connections between the life and work of a composer can be tricky. Intimate revelations in letters, diaries, and other writings from Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, for example, inevitably invite autobiographical interpretations for some of their pieces, especially symphonies. Private verbal comments emerge as part of the compositional process, going beyond the purely musical and giving insights as to what the composer hoped to convey emotionally.

What may be justified in interpreting the works of certain Romantic composers, however, may not be appropriate for earlier Classical ones. In this respect Beethoven serves as a link between the 18th and 19th centuries. It seems legitimate to conjecture, for instance, that the ‘hero’ of the Eroica is ultimately more Beethoven himself than Napoleon, Prometheus, or anyone else. The Fifth Symphony has long been seen as reflecting the composer’s struggles with his hearing loss. Hector Berlioz wrote that in the Fifth it is Beethoven’s ‘own intimate thought that is developed; and his secret sorrows, his pent-up rage, his dreams so full of melancholy oppression, his nocturnal visions and his bursts of enthusiasm.’ The Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, does not immediately appear to carry such autobiographical weight, but its titles and program in fact closely echo comments in Beethoven’s sketches and writings about his love of nature and his religious beliefs.

A double premiere

Beethoven was at the most prolific stage of his career when he wrote these symphonies during his thirties: ‘I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time.’ As early as 1803, while composing the Eroica, he sketched some ideas that he later used in the Sixth Symphony. Over the next few years composition of the Pastoral overlapped with that of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, as well as with other major projects such as his opera Fidelio. The most intensive work on the Fifth was done in 1807 and spilled over into the next year, while that on the Sixth followed in the spring and summer.

Beethoven decided to premiere the two works together on a famous concert he presented on December 22, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien. The symphonies were performed in reverse order and with their numbers switched: the Pastoral opened the first part of the evening and the C minor the second, on this occasion labeled as his Sixth. The program listed the overall title, aim, and movement titles of the Pastoral, which were somewhat different from what was indicated in the published score a few months later:

Part One

Pastoral Symphony, (No. 5) more expression of feeling than painting.

First Movement. Pleasant feelings that are awakened in mankind on arriving in the country.
Second Movement. Scene by the brook.
Third Movement. Joyful fellowship of country people; leading to
Fourth Movement. Thunder and Storm; in turn leading to
Fifth Movement. Beneficent feeling after the storm joined with thanks to the deity.

[There followed the concert aria Ah perfido!, the Gloria from the Mass in C major, and Beethoven playing his Fourth Piano Concerto]

Part Two

Grand Symphony in C minor (No. 6)

[There followed the Sanctus from the Mass, a piano improvisation by Beethoven, and the Choral Fantasy]

‘More expression of feeling than painting’

Beethoven was ambivalent about ‘program music,’ which would emerge as one of the most hotly contested issues in 19th-century music. The titles now associated with many of his works, such as the ‘Moonlight,’ ‘Pastoral,’ or ‘Spring’ sonatas, did not come from him and were usually applied after his death. Although he named his Third Symphony the Eroica, he did not give the Fifth Symphony a title nor did he say much about it. The famous soundbite that the opening motive represents ‘fate knocking at the door’ is reported by Anton Schindler, his often unreliable assistant and biographer.

On the other hand, concerning the Sixth Symphony—the Sinfonia pastorale: Recollection of Country Life—Beethoven’s own titles and programmatic indications were an integral part of the work’s genesis and they were publically declared at the premiere as well as in the published score. Beethoven said the Pastoral was ‘more expression of feeling than painting.’ This important statement was not some passing comment, but rather a defining principle of the work.

Like Mahler in his Third Symphony, a vast composition encompassing all of nature, Beethoven’s sketches reveal him working out his aesthetic concept for the Pastoral over time. Many sketches survive for the piece that were interspersed with verbal remarks suggesting his ambivalence about what information to divulge and how literal and representational the symphony should be: ‘One leaves it to the listener to discover the situations’; ‘All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far’; and ‘Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles.’

The pastoral tradition

By the time Beethoven composed the Sixth Symphony, illustrative music had a history stretching back for centuries, with pastoral themes being a particular favorite not just in music, but also in literature and the visual arts. Some of this tradition was familiar to Beethoven. There was, for example, a body of ‘characteristic’ symphonies. The movement titles that Beethoven provided in the Pastoral closely resemble those of Le Portrait musical de la nature, written nearly 25 years earlier by the long forgotten composer Justin Heinrich Knecht.

More immediate models can be found in Haydn’s mature oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), enormously popular pieces in Vienna at the time. Beethoven had objected to some of Haydn’s more literal musical illustrations, which may partly account for his ambivalence regarding his own depiction of nature in the Sixth Symphony.

Listening to nature

The relaxed beginning of the Pastoral, for soft violins above a rustic drone, stands in stark contrast to the aggressive intensity that launches the Fifth Symphony. The published title of the movement (‘Awakening of joyful feelings upon arriving in the country’) is somewhat different from what Beethoven had used for the premiere and resonates with his own anticipation of such excursions; one senses the pleasures of leisurely wandering. The second movement (‘Scene by the brook’) includes three birdcalls that are indicated in the score: a flute for the nightingale, an oboe for the quail, and two clarinets for the cuckoo (Berlioz copied the effect for two of the birds in the pastoral third movement of his Symphonie fantastique).

The Pastoral is Beethoven’s only symphony with five movements and the last three lead one into the next, as he had earlier connected the final two in the Fifth Symphony. The third (‘Merry gathering of country people’) suggests a town band of limited ability playing dance music. The gaiety is interrupted by a ‘Tempest, storm’ that approaches from afar; ominous rumblings give way to the full fury of thunder and lightning. As in the Fifth, Beethoven reserved certain instruments, such as the piccolo and trombones, to make their first dramatic entrance at this point. Just as the storm had approached gradually, so too it passes, leaving some scattered moments of turbulence before the final ‘Shepherds’ Hymn—Joyful, grateful feelings after the storm,’ which brings the work to its noble conclusion.

And thus we return to the sounds of a shepherd, sounds Beethoven lamented he could not hear. He had not mentioned shepherds at all in his original title for the finale of the Pastoral, but rather spoke of ‘gratitude to the Deity,’ thus making explicit the underlying religious component of the symphony. A sketch for the last movement reads: ‘Expression of thanks, O Lord, we thank thee.’ One of Beethoven’s favorite books was Christoph Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature, a compendium of daily homilies. Like the symphony, this popular book links nature and religion, resonating with fundamental aspects of the composer’s personality. Despite the very different trajectories of the abstract Fifth Symphony and of the programmatic Sixth, both end affirmatively, one in heroic triumph, the other in joyous gratitude.

Christopher H. Gibbs