Long programs

Longer Program Notes (500 – 1500 words)


Ludwig van Beethoven   (b Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; d Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827)
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in F Major, Op.68
I. Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country – (Allegro ma non troppo)
II. Scene by the Brook – (Andante molto mosso)
III. Merry Gathering of Country Folk – (Allegro)
IV. Thunderstorm – (Allegro)
V. Shepherd’s Song. Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm – (Allegretto)

The Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” is filled with charm and gratefulness, the light of the sun through summer leaves, and the grace and quietude of nature observed. When one regards Beethoven, with all his scowling portraits and the allusions to monumental struggle in his Fifth Symphony, hearing his Sixth comes as a complete surprise.

As with his Fifth, the Sixth’s essence had been germinating in Beethoven’s head for many years. His busy city life in Vienna was increasingly counter-balanced by long sojourns to its parks and out into the countryside, and especially in the lovely town of Heiligenstadt, where in the summer of 1808 he escaped to finish the “Pastoral.” As he wrote to a friend, “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” The composer, now truly suffering from his increasing deafness and dissatisfaction with human nature, found joy in the purity of nature and captured it in the expression he knew best – music.

The methods of expression Beethoven chose were quietness, repetition and a relaxed pace (or, as musicologist Donald Tovey called, “lazy”). One can hear this marvelously in the first movement, where the amplitude is exquisitely peaceful, and in which Beethoven seems to blissfully luxuriate in the simple repetition of themes. The harmonic pace of the movement is also on holiday – for example, near the beginning of the development section, the key (Bb) lollygags for some 50 measures before Beethoven moves to the key of D. All of this nurtures us, calms us, and brings us into nature’s realm. And the same spirit pervades the whole symphony. Even as the fourth movement threatens us with a storm, the following song of thanks in the fifth movement is, as essayist Basil Lam astutely observed, a thanks to “ … the Creator …, not for ending the storm, but for the glory of Nature, of which the storm is a part.”

Beethoven himself chose the name for his Sixth, “Pastoral,” as well as each of the movement’s subtitles, and together they suggest a “program,” or series of scenes which the Symphony depicts. Although he cautioned against pictorial precision, in the brief notes he provided for its premiere, Beethoven called the Pastoral “… more of a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds… no picture, but something in which the emotions are expressed that are aroused by the pleasures of the country.” His subtitles evoke, in a spiritual way, the psychological essence of what being in nature meant to him, honoring nature’s “music” with his own. Even so, there are some delightful imitations of nature, including the obvious replications of bird song (nightingale, quail and the cuckoo played by the flute, oboe and clarinet) in the second movement and the thunderstorm (with timpani and trombones) in the fourth movement. And the result is Beethoven at his happiest and most tenderhearted.