Portrait of Beethoven in 1804, when he had been working on the Sixth Symphony for two years.
Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locations.
The first sketches of the Pastoral Symphony appeared in 1802. It was composed simultaneously with Beethoven’s more famous—and more fiery—Fifth Symphony. Both symphonies were premiered in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 22 December 1808.
The composer said that the Sixth Symphony is “more the expression of feeling than painting”, a point underlined by the title of the first movement.
Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry gathering of country folk): Allegro
Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder. Storm): Allegro
Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto
The third movement ends on an imperfect cadence that leads straight into the fourth; the fourth movement leads straight into the fifth without a pause. A performance of the work lasts about 40 minutes. Beethoven wrote a short descriptive note at the head of each movement.
First Movement: Allegro ma non troppo
‘Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside.’
The symphony begins with a placid and cheerful movement depicting the composer’s feelings as he arrives in the country. The movement, in 2/4 meter, is in sonata form, and its motifs are extensively developed. At several points Beethoven builds up orchestral texture by multiple repetitions of very short motifs. Yvonne Frindle commented, “the infinite repetition of pattern in nature [is] conveyed through rhythmic cells, its immensity through sustained pure harmonies.”
Cadenza of bird calls in second movement; bird species are noted in German. Click to enlarge.
‘Scene by the brook.’
This movement, titled by Beethoven “By the brook,” is in 12/8 meter; the key is B flat major, the subdominant of the main key of the work. The movement is in sonata form.
At the opening the strings play a motif that clearly imitates flowing water. The cello section is divided, with just two players playing the flowing-water notes on muted instruments, with the remaining cellos playing mostly pizzicato notes together with the double basses.
Toward the end of the movement there is a cadenza for woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets).
The following audio of the second movement was recorded in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini:
This is a scherzo in 3/4 time, which depicts country folk dancing and revelling. It is in F major, returning to the main key of the symphony.
The form of the movement is an altered version of the usual form for scherzi, in that the trio appears twice rather than just once, and the third appearance of the scherzo theme is truncated. Perhaps to accommodate this rather spacious arrangement, Beethoven did not mark the usual internal repeats of the scherzo and the trio. Theodor Adorno identifies this scherzo as the model for the scherzos by Anton Bruckner.
The final return of the theme conveys a riotous atmosphere with a faster tempo. The movement ends abruptly, leading without a pause into the fourth movement.
The following audio of the third and fourth movements was recorded in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini:
The fourth movement, in F minor, depicts a violent thunderstorm with painstaking realism, building from just a few drops of rain to a great climax with thunder, lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain. The storm eventually passes, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. There is a seamless transition into the final movement. This movement parallels Mozart‘s procedure in his String Quintet in G minor K. 516 of 1787, which likewise prefaces a serene final movement with a long, emotionally stormy introduction.
Fifth Movement: Allegretto
‘Shepherd’s song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.’
The finale is in F major and is in 6/8 time. The movement is written in sonata rondo form, meaning that the main theme appears in the tonic key at the beginning of the development as well as the exposition and the recapitulation. Like many classical finales, this movement emphasizes a symmetrical eight-bar theme, in this case representing the shepherds’ song of thanksgiving.
The coda starts quietly and gradually builds to an ecstatic culmination for the full orchestra (minus “storm instruments”), with the first violins playing very rapid triplet tremolo on a high F. There follows a fervent passage suggestive of prayer, marked by Beethoven “pianissimo, sotto voce”; most conductors slow the tempo for this passage. After a brief period of afterglow, the work ends with two emphatic F major chords.
The following audio of the fifth movement was recorded in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini: