Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (No.6 in F major)

‘Beethoven and Nature’ by N. C. Wyeth (1921)

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (No.6 in F major) was composed around the same time period of his Fifth Symphony. The work was completed in 1808 and premiered on the same day, December 22nd, together with his Fifth Symphony and some other works. Early sketches of some ideas of the symphony dated back to 1803~04, indicating that he probably put off the Sixth while focusing on the mighty C minor Symphony.

It would be fair to say that the Pastoral Symphony is the only “programmatic” work amongst all of Beethoven’s symphonies. Never before and after this work did Beethoven put down such explicit description of each movements in his published score:

1. The awakening of joyous feelings on getting out into the countryside
2. Scene by the brook
3. Joyous gathering of the country folk
4. Thunderstorm
5. Shepherd’s song; happy and thankful feelings after the storm

However, it seems Beethoven hesitated to consider this work pure programme music, as he stated that the symphony is “more the expression of feeling than tone-painting”. Nevertheless, his creativity and never-ending effort in creating new genre made Beethoven the pioneer leading the Classical era into the Romantic times, and there can not be any further evidence more obvious and prominent than his Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven wanted to write this symphony in the “pastoral” tradition using many of the time-honored pictorial devices known to the programmatic genres, yet at the same time aimed to create a work with high artistic level of expressive and formal cogency. The two dimensions differ in importance and audibility from one movement to another, but the duality runs through the whole work[1]. There is very insightful analysis of this duality by Leonerd Bernstein in the 3rd installment of his 1973 6-lecture series “Unanswered Question”, titled “The Musical Semantics”, given at Harvard, in which he detailed the “intrinsic” musical meanings underneath the seemingly programmatic surface structures of this work; it is available here on Youtube.

But for the majority of us listeners, we have been enjoying the pleasant literal depiction of the nature presented in this work; such experience is even further enhanced by the descriptive remarks on the score, written by the composer himself.

1. Allegro ma non troppo

The first movement is in sonata form and 2/4 meters, with the overall bright and joyous mood permeated throughout the movement. There are numerous themes closely related to each other, roughly form two subject groups. The first subject group builds on a four-bar phrase (subject 1-A), played by violin, right from the beginning without any introduction:

Opening motifs

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In his lecture Bernstein highlighted the ending fourth by the underlying cello in the motif. The fourth can be heard more prominently during development, such as this by the woodwinds:

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The following phrase might be seen as subject 1-B, closely mimicing the main subject but on a quarter-note rhythm:

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The start of the second subject group stretches the rhythm further to use half notes, first emerges on the cello accompanied by violin with arpeggios, and then the whole phrase reversed between two instrument groups (subject 2-A):

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It is then followed by this lovely dialouge between the strings and woodwind (2-B):

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One notable feature in this movement is the constant evolution and growth of the subject materials through repetition. It seems to resonate with the sentiment of endless (eternal) self-replication of all the elements in nature, or the overwhelming joy as one patrolling across the countryside. Listen to this 24-bar long of the repeating opening motif:

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As George Grove put it, Beethoven employed such “incessant repetition of the same or similar short phrases throughout this long movement; and yet the effect is such that, when the end arrives, we would gladly hear it all over again”; such repetition “causes a monotony…which, though no imitation, is akin to the constant sounds of nature”.[2]

2. Andante molto mosso

As the subtitle indicates, the “scene” that listeners can imagine in this movement is by the brook, with water flowing under the summer sunshine. The 8/12 triple meters appropriately imitate the smooth and rocking waves of the water flowing in the brook, with a rhythm as below (sometimes varied on semi-quaver) on the strings underlying all the melodies throughout the movement:

On top of this comfortable and steady flow comes the first subject (A) on violin, much relaxed and lighthearted, with those long breaks in between suggesting the sense of casual wandering along the brook:

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The following second subject (B) gives us such sweet and soothing sensation:

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There is a third subject (C) that is quite prevalent in the movement, first appears on bassoon and then joined by the cello:

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All three subjects develop throughout the movement, in which oboe and clarinet take turns to lead the main subject, each with some variation. The flute leads the reprise of the first subject in recapitulation. The movement is considered to be in sonata form, with above three subjects developed extensively, in roughly below structure:

[Exp.] A (violin – clarinet)→B (violin)→
[Dev.] A’ (violin)→C (bassoon/cello)→B (cello)→A’ (oboe)→B (cello)→A (clarinet)→B (violin)→
[Recap.] A (flute/violin)→C (violin)→B (cello)→
[Coda] Cadenza (flute/oboe/clarinet)

The overall impression is as if various scenes by the brook alternating in front of us, with subject B serving almost like an “intermezzo” in between.

What is again unusual is the introduction of a orchestral cadenza in the coda section, by an the woodwind to mimic the bird calls of a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets):

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3. Allegro

The third movement depict a scene of joyous gathering or village fair of the country folks. It is largely a traditional scherzo, however the trio is played twice. The first subject starts light on strings on a fast 3/4 meter, as if people coming through busy streets and quickly flocking into town:

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occasionally we hear noisy commotion from the crowd:

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The 2nd subject is led by oboe, brisk syncopation conveys a pleasant atmosphere of the fair; with bassoon playing a few irregular notes here and there (it’s said to depict few drunken village band players):

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Then comes the trio, with its loud and heavy thumping 2/4 rhythm imitating those rough village dances:

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After the repeat if main subject group, the movement leads directly into the fourth movement without break.

4. Allegro

Without much need of any explanation, the storm is depicted vividly. If there is any hint of “painting” in this symphony at all, this is probably it (even though Beethoven made it clear the work is more expression of feelings than tone-painting). It begins with the approaching dark clouds and chaos in the village while people fleeing the fair:

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and with wind blowing wildly and thunder blasting through the dark sky:

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while fierce down-pour sweeping through the countryside:

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Here we can hear the early use (may or may not be the first) of piccolo, the tearing high pitch mixed with the whole orchestra suggests the blowing of high wind. At the end, the thunder disappears far away, the storm gradually weakens and calms down, we see sunshine breaking through the clouds, and can almost smell the breeze of new fresh air:

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This introduction-like passage leads us straight into the finale.

5. Allegretto

Clarinet and French horn play the brief introduction passage, depicting the picturesque landscape right after the storm:

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and the main subject follows on the strings, which is said to be the shepherd’s song, expressing pleasure and gratitude:

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The second subject is played by clarinet and bassoon, continuing the joyful mood:

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As the movement enters coda, the overall tone becomes somewhat calmer, gives a sense of peace and fulfillment, and pleasant reflection of the countryside scenes. The whole work ends with the horn recalling the opening passage.


[1] Lockwood, L. Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision. Norton, 2015.
[2] Grove, G. Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies – Analytical Essays. Boston, 1888

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