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BEETHOVEN | Symphony no. 6, Pastoral



BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony no. 6, Pastoral

- Allegro ma non troppo (Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country)
- Andante molto mosso (Scene by a brook)
- Allegro (Peasants’ merrymaking)
- Allegro (Thunderstorm)
- Allegretto (Shepherds’ Hymn – happy, thankful feelings after the storm)

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“More the expression of feeling than tone-painting,” was how Beethoven described up his Pastoral Symphony (1807-8). Yet there are moments of glorious tone-painting: the thunder in the fourth movement for instance, or the birdcalls in the closing pages of the second. But Beethoven was at least partly a romantic, a believer that truth lay more in feeling than in fact. That is why he insisted, in his sketchbooks, that “tone-painting when pushed too far loses its value”. The French composer Hector Berlioz, a genius of orchestral tone-painting, hailed the Pastoral Symphony in terms that would have delighted Beethoven: “This is no question of gaily dressed shepherds… it is a matter of nature in her simple truth.” 

The first movement of the Pastoral is very different indeed from any of its precursors: it is more expansive, and the first theme has a relaxed, open, song-like quality quite unlike the taut, muscular thematic springboards that set the Eroica and the Fifth symphonies in motion. Beethoven’s subtitle describes it well: this is not an explosion of emotion, but a gradual “awakening of cheerful feelings”. At the heart of the movement, the rhythm of the opening theme becomes a repeated pattern, with chugging figures in the lower strings, in a series of long crescendos – easy to imagine the regular turning of the carriage wheels as the city is left behind.

“Scene by a brook” begins with undulating harmonies for lower strings, above which first violins sing heart-easing melodic phrases. In Beethoven’s sketchbooks the undulating string figures are marked “Murmur of the stream” and, underneath, “the bigger the brook, the deeper its note”. Near the end of the movement, a woodwind birdsong is heard twice (Beethoven specifies the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo) before the movement flows gently to its close. 

The third movement is a lightly dancing scherzo, with a stomping trio section in two-time suggestive of earthy country dances. The scherzo and trio sections are heard twice, but the third time the scherzo accelerates, then is suddenly and dramatically cut off. Hushed bass tremolos and pattering violin figures evoke distant thunder and the first raindrops. Before long the storm is fully upon us, with terrific thunderclaps on the brass, timpani and the growling cellos and basses. It is sobering to remember that the man who created these vivid sound-pictures had been deaf for the best part of a decade: all of this would have had to be retrieved and reconstructed from long-distant memories. 

The storm abates, and a quiet hymn-like figure is heard on woodwind and upper strings (one writer famously compared this to a rainbow), then an upward scale on solo flute heralds the beginning of the finale. A solo clarinet imitates a shepherd’s pipe, echoed by a solo horn. Violins transform these fragments of themes into a long, fully-fledged melody. At length the finale builds to an ecstatic climax, again very hymn-like. But the ending is a long way from the typical Beethovenian triumphant fortissimo. The glory fades; a muted horn softly recalls the finale’s opening, then with two full-orchestral chords the symphony is over.

Programme notes by Stephen Johnson




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