Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major (Op. 68), known as the Pastoral Symphony, was completed in the year 1808. One of Beethoven's few works of program music, the symphony was labeled at its first performance with the title "Recollections of Country Life".
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 locales. He was, however, not the first composer to depict nature symphonically; for example, Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Seasons, premiered in 1802, likewise portrayed the loveliness of nature, dancing peasants, a thunderstorm, bird calls, and so on. Beethoven did not write another oratorio, but a symphony, and thus escaped from the overly-literal character that a libretto would have imposed. As the composer said, the Sixth Symphony is "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds", and the same point is made in the title he attached to the first movement (see below).
The Sixth Symphony was composed simultaneously with Beethoven's more famous -- and more fiery -- Fifth Symphony. It was premiered along with the Fifth in a long and somewhat underrehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, on December 22, 1808. It was received rather coldly, mainly due to the excitement caused by its more flamboyant counterpart. Although the Sixth Symphony contains some of Beethoven's most beautiful writing, the crowds had been wanting another bold and adventurous work, and the relatively calm and introspective composition was not wholly to their liking.
Since this inauspicious beginning, however, the work has become one of the central works of the symphonic repertoire. It is a favorite of many listeners and is frequently performed and recorded today.
The symphony breaks from the standard symphonic form of the time in having five movements, rather than the four typical of the Classical era. The movements are marked as follows:
Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of joyous feelings upon arrival in the country): Allegro ma non troppo
Szene am Bach (By the brook): Andante molto mosso
Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Happy gathering of country folk): Allegro
Gewitter. Sturm (Thunderstorm; Storm): Allegro
Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto
A performance of the work lasts about 40 minutes. The last three movements are performed together without pause.
Description of Movements
I. Allegro ma non troppo
The symphony begins with a placid and cheerful movement depicting the composer's feelings as he arrives in the country. The work is in sonata form, and makes use of a small number of themes, each of which is extensively developed and transformed.
An unusual aspect of the movement is the use of a microscopic texture, obtained by multiple repetitions of very short motifs. As Yvonne Frindle has said, "the infinite repetition of pattern in nature [is] conveyed through rhythmic cells, its immensity through sustained pure harmonies."
II. Andante molto mosso
This movement, entitled by Beethoven "By the brook," is held to be one of Beethoven's most beautiful and serene compositions. It is in a 12/8 measure and the key is B flat major, the subdominant of the main key of the work, and 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 three woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet).
This is the scherzo movement of the symphony, which depicts the country folk dancing and reveling. 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, as follows:
Scherzo | Trio | 2/4 section | Scherzo | Trio | 2/4 section | Scherzo (abbreviated)
In other words, the Trio appears twice rather than just once, and each time it appears it is interrupted by a boisterous passage in 2/4 time (a similar 2/4 eruption is found in Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata for piano). Perhaps to accommodate this rather spacious arrangement, Beethoven left out the normally observed repeats of the second parts of the scherzo and the trio.
The final return of Scherzo conveys a riotous atmosphere with a faster tempo. The movement ends abruptly when the country folk notice that raindrops are starting to fall...
The fourth movement, in F minor, depicts a violent thunderstorm with painstaking realism, starting with just a few drops of rain and building to a great climax. There is, of course, thunder, as well as lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain. From Beethoven's injunction that the symphony is meant to be more "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds," one might guess that the movement depicts not just the storm itself, but the feelings of awe and fear experienced by a witness to the storm.
The storm eventually spends itself, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. There is a seamless transition into the final movement, including a theme that could be interpreted as depicting a rainbow.
Since the fourth movement does not resolve in a final cadence, and by the pattern of Classical symphonies would count as the "extra" movement among the five, critics have described it structurally as an extended introduction to the final movement, rather than an independent movement in itself. A precedent for Beethoven's procedure is found in an earlier work (1787), Mozart's String Quintet in G minor K. 516, which likewise prefaces a serene final movement with a long, emotionally stormy introduction.
The finale is in F major and is in 6/8 time. The first eight bars form a continuation of the introduction of which the storm was the main part; the finale proper begins in the ninth bar. 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. There is a very long coda.
Like many classical finales, this movement emphasizes a symmetrical eight-bar theme, in this case representing the shepherds' song of thanksgiving. The mood throughout is unmistakably joyful.
The coda, which Antony Hopkins has called "arguably the finest music of the whole symphony," starts quietly and gradually builds to an ecstatic culmination for the full orchestra (minus "storm instruments"), with the first violins playing very rapid triplets at the top of their range. 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 chords.