The Pastoral Symphony
No. 6 in F Major, Opus 68 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Composed 1802-1808. Premiered in 1808 in Vienna, conducted by Beethoven.
When we go on holiday we usually choose our destination for a particular reason – perhaps it has beautiful scenery, an interesting coastline, a wonderful climate or we might be attracted by its history and architecture. Once we arrive, we get used to our new surroundings explore the immediate location, venturing further afield each day, gradually exploring the whole region. Sometimes we may come back to a particularly lovely place year after year, always discovering new things each time. This is how many people feel about Beethoven’s symphonies – I hope you will too!
With our continuing theme of nature, I had to include Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. If listening to such a long piece is a new experience and feels a little daunting (it has five movements and lasts about 40 minutes) perhaps start with the fourth movement “The Storm”, which is 4 minutes of sheer drama (28’29” on the recording).
Put the volume high enough to hear the huge dynamic range Beethoven uses from the first pattering raindrops and the gradual building crescendo as the storm gathers force. Listen and watch for the energy of the timpani player and the strings playing “tremolo” giving the effect of the thunder – sometimes rumbling in the distance and sometimes terrifyingly directly overhead. The piccolo player’s few notes depict flashes of lightning. Towards the end there is a wonderful feeling of relief as the storm ebbs away leading into a chorale passage rather like a prayer, and an ascending scale on the flute which in my mind must surely represent a rainbow.
The Whole Symphony
Beethoven often took long walks in the countryside especially as his hearing deteriorated and he found it increasingly difficult to socialise. He often found inspiration for his compositions on such walks and so always carried a sketchbook – some of these are now housed in the British Library.
His most famous 5th symphony and the 6th (The Pastoral) were composed simultaneously when he was in his 30s and show very different sides to his personality. In the 5th we see a lot of the notoriously stormy Beethoven while on the whole the Pastoral shows him at his most serene.
Each movement has a descriptive title (times on the recording in brackets):
- Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside [ 0:00 ]
- Scene by the brook [ 10:51 ]
- Merry gathering of country folk [ 22:40 ]
- Thunder, Storm [ 28:29 ]
- Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm [ 32:30]
The first movement has a wonderful, joyful feeling as the title suggests. It starts in a rather unusual way, the first theme coming to a pause after just a few bars. Then tiny fragments from the melody and a very distinctive rhythm are developed immediately until the full-blown version of the theme evolves. Although the movement follows sonata form – the norm for a classical symphony – this technique for developing the material as it is presented, rather than reserving this treatment until the middle (or development section) is very much a hall-mark of Beethoven. The idea of repeating but subtly changing patterns is used extensively in this work, perhaps reflecting the patterns in nature.
In the second movement the sound of gently flowing water is clearly heard in the accompaniment. We feel we are following the course of the river bringing a new scene into view every time the music changes key. Birds are very much in evidence and even named at one point during a short cadenza – the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet).
The third movement where in a traditional classical symphony we would find a Minuet and Trio – a formal courtly dance, Beethoven writes a Scherzo where the 3 in a bar has become so fast it is really in 1. Not for the nobility, this is a dance for the peasants with an extremely rustic sounding trio section in 2 time! Listen how the music gets faster and faster towards the end until it comes to an abrupt stop and the first raindrops start to fall.
The 3rd, 4th and 5th movements are continuous – we have already discussed The Storm which is really an extra movement, the traditional pattern of the symphony having four. After The Storm there is a link to the Finale which has a wonderful feeling of thanksgiving.
The Life of a Musician in Beethoven’s Day
Before the unification of Germany and Italy there were many small principalities (kingdoms) each with its own ruler, eg. a Prince, Count or Duke. If they were keen on music and rich enough, they would employ musicians to form an orchestra and a “Kapellmeister” or Musical Director in charge of composing and organising performances for all occasions at court. Classed as servants they were expected to follow orders and wear the livery uniform just like any footman or butler.
If a music-loving prince was succeeded by one who didn’t care much for music all his musicians might suddenly find themselves out of a job. Also some patrons might try to influence their resident composer and complain if they were too adventurous or “modern” in their style of writing.
Such were the frustrations that 21-year old Mozart left the services of the Archbishop (Prince) of Salzburg becoming the first “freelance” musician – a very precarious position even for such a talented composer … and he died penniless.
Beethoven’s Childhood, Early Career and Deafness
Ludwig van Beethoven was born into a musical family in Bonn (now Western Germany) in 1770. His childhood was turbulent and unhappy with his alcoholic father often literally dragging the young boy from his bed in the middle of the night for a piano lesson.
Herr van Beethoven realised there was money and fame to be had showing off his son’s talent as a virtuoso pianist, like the infant prodigy Mozart 14 years earlier. To launch his 7 year old son’s career he arranged a concert, lying about his son’s age. This fell flat – Beethoven’s route to stardom through becoming becoming the “wunderkind” the six year-old Mozart had been.
At the age of 17 Beethoven headed for the cultural capital, Vienna. He hoped to study with Mozart, the greatest composer of the day and had the honour of being accepted. However, he never got to have a single lesson as he was unexpectedly when his mother fell seriously ill. Five years later when he returned, Mozart had died (aged only 35) but the young Beethoven did study with Joseph Haydn, Mozart’s mentor and close friend, often called the “Father of the Symphony”.
It didn’t take long for Beethoven to establish his reputation as the finest pianist in Vienna (and probably the world), a title he earned through the “Piano Duels”. Pianists would sparr against each other, improvising on popular tunes of the day, whilst being cheered on by their supporters, rather like a sports event.
Just like Mozart, Beethoven had decided not to be tied to working for a single patron. However his many admirers in the nobility helped him to earn a good living through commissioning compositions and promoting performances of new works in which he would often conduct or appear as soloist. He also taught piano in these circles.
Disaster struck in his late 20s when he realised that he was going deaf – worrying enough for anyone, but for a musician completely devastating.
In May 1802, he went to a country retreat Heiligenstadt outside Vienna to rest on the advice of his doctor. Depressed and unable to hide his increasing infirmity, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers which was never sent but which he guarded carefully until his death. It became known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” and in it he revealed his struggles with deafness. The following extracts give some sense of his mood:
“O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me ….. but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case …. I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness ….. yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect”
Although he was almost totally deaf by the end of his life, Beethoven composed to the last, hearing all the music completely inside his own head. His legacy was probably the most important of any composer in history.
Signposts for Further Exploration
The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven
Whereas Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, is sometimes called the “Father of the symphony” as he wrote 104 and established the pattern for its 4-movement form, Beethoven is considered its absolute master. Many subsequent composers have been so much in awe of Beethoven’s symphonies that they have felt it an almost impossible act to follow.
Every one of the nine symphonies is totally different and they span Beethoven’s entire career, the First being written in 1800 and obviously very indebted to Haydn, and the Ninth “The Choral Symphony”, written for the largest orchestra to date, soloists and a massive choir. His setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy is often a young musician’s first experience of Beethoven, but they have no idea of the scale of the piece from which it comes!
Here is a link to live recordings of all nine played by different famous orchestras, in some of the most amazing concert halls around the world:
Beethoven the Romantic
The essence of the Romantic Movement was the expression of beauty of nature and the emotions through art. Beethoven was born in the same year as the English poet William Wordsworth who is one of our best-known Romantic poets. It could be argued that the Pastoral Symphony was one of the earliest musical works to express these Romantic ideas.
You might be interested to read some Wordsworth and see the similar thinking between the great composer and the great poet. There were similar parallels in painting as well with many artists painting often quite idealised scenes of the countryside.
A Very Special Orchestra: the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
The performance I have chosen is by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under its Director and Founder Daniel Barenboim.
Founded in 1999, the orchestra is based in Seville, Spain and consists of young musicians from right across the Middle-East and also Spanish backgrounds. Bringing together players of these often conflicting backgrounds for an annual course and a concert tour, the orchestra plays at the highest level and in the spirit of reconciliation – something which I am sure the great humanitarian Beethoven would have thoroughly approved of.
It is best described in Barenboim’s own words:
“The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward [Said – co-founder] died a few years ago … create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
One of the young musicians of the orchestra reinforced this point:
“Barenboim is always saying his project is not political. But one of the really great things is that this is a political statement by both sides. It is more important not for people like myself, but for people to see that it is possible to sit down with Arab people and play. The orchestra is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other.”
Follow the Score
What is a Symphony?
If you would like to find out more about the development of the Symphony here is the Wikipedia link