Most of the familiar titles attached to Beethoven's works were put there by someone other than the composer. Critics, friends, and publishers invented the labels "Moonlight," "Tempest," and "Appassionata" for popular piano sonatas. Prominent patrons' names—Archduke Rudolph, Count Razumovsky, Count Waldstein—became wedded to compositions they either commissioned or that are dedicated to them, thereby winning a sort of immortality for those who supported the composer.
Beethoven himself crossed out the heading "Bonaparte" from the title page of the Third Symphony, but later wrote in "Sinfonia eroica" (Heroic Symphony), and it is his only symphony besides the Sixth to bear an authentic title. To be sure, stories about "fate knocking at the door" in the Fifth and the choral finale of the Ninth have encouraged programmatic associations for those works, beginning in Beethoven's own time. But, in the end, it is the Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral," that stands most apart from his others, and indeed from nearly all of Beethoven's instrumental and keyboard music, in its intentional, publicly declared, and often quite audible extramusical content. Beethoven's full title is: "Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life."
"More an Expression of Feeling Than Painting"
And yet the Sixth Symphony does not aspire to the level of musical realism found in a work like Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique or in Richard Strauss's later tone poems. In the program for its premiere, Beethoven famously noted that the "Pastoral" contained "more an expression of feeling than painting." He had earlier objected to some of the musical illustration in Haydn's oratorios The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), with their imitations of storms, frogs, and other phenomena. He probably would not have cared much for what the "New German School" of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner would later advocate and create.
Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony belongs to a tradition, going back to the previous century, of "characteristic" symphonies. Indeed, the titles for the movements that Beethoven provided closely resemble those of "Le Portrait musical de la nature," written nearly 25 years earlier by the Rheinish composer Justin Heinrich Knecht. (It is doubtful Beethoven knew the music of the piece, but he did know the titles.) Scattered comments that Beethoven made in his sketches for the Symphony are revealing: "The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations / Sinfonia caracteristica—or recollection of country life / All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far / Sinfonia pastorella. Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles / Also without titles the whole will be recognized as a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds."
Regardless of the musical and aesthetic implications that the "Pastoral" Symphony raises with respect to the program music—a key issue for debate over the rest of the century—it unquestionably offers eloquent testimony to the importance and power of nature in Beethoven's life. The composer reveled in walking in the environs of Vienna and spent nearly every summer in the country. When Napoleon’s second occupation of the city in 1809 meant that he could not leave, he wrote to his publisher: "I still cannot enjoy life in the country, which is so indispensable to me." Indeed, Beethoven's letters are filled with declarations of the importance of nature in his life, such as one from 1810: "How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. 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."
Beethoven wrote the "Pastoral" primarily during the spring and fall of 1808, although some sketches date back years earlier. Its composition overlapped in part with that of the Fifth Symphony, which might be considered its non-identical twin. Not only did both have the same period of genesis and the same dedicatees (Count Razumovsky and Prince Lobkowitz), but they were also published within weeks of one another in the spring of 1809 and premiered together (in reverse order and with their numbers switched).
The occasion was Beethoven's famous marathon concert of December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, and was the only time he premiered two symphonies together. Moreover, the program also included the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from the Mass in C, the concert aria Ah! perfido, and the "Choral" Fantasy. Reports indicate that all did not go well, as musicians playing after limited rehearsal struggled their way through this demanding new music, and things fell apart during the "Choral" Fantasy. Although the Fifth and Sixth symphonies are extremely different from one another in overall mood, there are notable points of convergence, such as the innovations in instrumentation (the delayed and dramatic introduction of piccolo and trombones in the fourth movements) and the splicing together of the final movements.
A Closer Look
Beethoven's descriptive movement titles for the "Pastoral" were made public to the audience before the premiere. The first movement, "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country," engages with a long musical tradition of pastoral music. From the opening drone of an open fifth in the lower strings to the jovial coda, the leisurely and often repetitive pace of the movement is far from the intensity of the Fifth Symphony. The second movement, "Scene by the brook," includes the famous birdcalls: flute for the nightingale, oboe for the quail, and two clarinets for the cuckoo (Berlioz copied the effect for two of the birds in the pastoral third movement of his Symphonie fantastique).
This is Beethoven's only symphony with five movements and the last three lead one into the next. The third is entitled "Merry gathering of peasants" and suggests a town band of limited ability playing dance music. The dance is interrupted by a "Tempest, storm" that approaches from afar as ominous rumblings give way to the full fury of thunder and lightning. The storm is far more intense than other well-known storms—such as by Vivaldi and Haydn—and presages later ones by Berlioz and Wagner. Just as the storm had approached gradually, so it passes, leaving some scattered moments of disruption before the "Shepherds’ hymn—Happy and thankful feelings after the storm" brings the work to its close. Regardless of Beethoven's declared intentions, this music seems to function on both descriptive and expressive levels, therein fueling arguments about the issue ever since his time.
Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.