Beethoven : Pastoral Symphony
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Baptized December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany.
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria,
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastorale)
Composed in 1808.
First Performance: December 22, 1808 conducted by Beethoven at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, alto trombone, tenor trombone, timpani, and strings
The Pastoral Symphony’s premiere performance took place in the unheated Theater-an-der-Wien on the evening of December 22, 1808 with Beethoven conducting. That alone would have made this a memorable concert, but the evening also included the premiere of the now universally famous Fifth Symphony! In addition, Beethoven performed the premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy conducting from the piano. Not enough? The concert included two excerpts from the Mass In C Major and the concert aria Ah Perfido! as well.
Beethoven spent the summers of 1807 and 1808 in the town of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous testament in 1802. Heiligenstadt is today a suburb of Vienna, but was rural in his time. The Pastoral Symphony was sketched during his daily outdoor meanderings.
The Pastoral Symphony breaks the tradition of the four movement symphony by presenting five movements, with the final three performed without any interruption between them. Beethoven himself gave descriptive titles for each movement but noted in his sketchbooks that “People will not require titles to recognize the general intention to be more a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds.” In 1784, Beethoven’s publisher (Bosler) placed an advertisement for a work entitled “Le Portrait musical de la nature” by the now forgotten composer Justin Knecht that also advertised Beethoven’s first three published piano sonatas. The five movement structure and descriptive titles were quite similar to Knecht’s piece although there is no musical similarity.
The idea of program music was hardly new, with examples going back at least to the Renaissance with composers Scheidt and Banchieri providing well known portrayals of battles. Haydn (Beethoven’s teacher from 1792-1794) produced more recent examples with the oratorios The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), and of course Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Beethoven did note that “All painting in instrumental music, if pushed too far, is a failure” which would indicate that he might not have approved of the developments in the “New School” of Berlioz, Liszt and later composers for whom the Pastoral Symphony was an inspiration. The “Pastoral” Symphony could hardly be perceived in any sense as a failure, and remains a high-point of depicting bucolic life.
First Movement “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country”
The F Major first movement uses a Sonata form with contrasting themes which are later developed. One rhythmic motif is developed extensively almost in the manner of the famous opening “fate motif” from the Fifth Symphony:
The rhythm in the second measure of this initial theme appears in many different settings. In the third measure it is immediately mirrored, and in one instance this motif is repeated ten times in succession. The music seems to be the perfect vehicle to accompany our visual images of being in the countryside.
Second Movement “Scene by the brook”
The slow second movement is in B flat major. It is also uses a Sonata form, unusual for a slow movement, but omits the repeat of the first section. The “triplet” feel of 12/8 lends itself to an undulating underpinning representing flowing water.
The movement ends with what Beethoven described as a private joke of the composer, as he himself described. There is a depiction of a nightingale in the flute, followed by a quail in the oboe which is in turn succeeded by the unmistakable falling third of the cuckoo in the clarinets. Beethoven’s joke was that within this framework he also presents the call of one of his favorite birds, the Yellow Hammer. This bird has the call of six short repeated notes followed by one long tone. While walking in the woods with his dear friend Schiller, Beethoven showed him the score to this movement. Knowing of the composer’s love for this particular bird, Schiller asked, “But where is the Yellow Hammer?” Beethoven showed him with childish delight the rhythmic motif of the Yellow Hammer within the other bird calls, which Schiller had not noticed.
Third Movement “Merry gathering of the country folk”
With its roots in the “minuet”, the third movement is a typical Beethoven scherzo – this time portraying a country dance, a rather inept and perhaps drunken village band, and even a brawl that breaks out in a local tavern.
After a repeated ostinato figure in the violins, the oboe jumps in with a cheerful Shepard-like tune which is commented on by a rather intrusive figure in the bassoon. A tussling melody emerges boldly before the tavern owner restores calm.
Fourth Movement “Thunderstorm”
This remarkable movement depicts a thunder storm suddenly interrupting the dancing and merry making (unforgettably animated by Walt Disney in Fantasia). A soft rumbling D flat – remote from the previous F major – is introduced in the lower strings as a harbinger to what is coming. The depiction of thunder explodes with a full orchestral tutti including the drums which are used in this symphony for only this purpose.
The interjections of the thunder diminish and disappear into the distance as the clouds give way to sunshine, leading us directly into the final movement.
Fifth Movement “Shepherd’s song. Happy and grateful feelings after the storm”
The opening melody on the clarinet and echoed by the horn is a Jodel or Ranz des Vaches (or Kühreihen), a song used by alpine herdsmen to call their cattle. (Berlioz also used a Ranz des Vaches in the third part of Symphonie fantastique). The rondo “theme of thanksgiving” evolves from its melodic and rhythmic material.
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