Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies have the reputation of being stormy and dramatic, while the even numbered symphonies seem more gentle and easy-going. For that reason, perhaps, the even numbered ones are less popular. Symphony no. 6, Pastoral, is easily the best known and most performed of the even numbered symphonies.
Beethoven worked on his Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies, among other major works, between 1806 and 1808. The latter two are the first of Beethoven’s symphonies with trombone parts.
Many symphonies and chamber works are known by nicknames that, more often than not, the composer never thought of. Beethoven himself supplied names for the Third Symphony (Eroica) and the Sixth (Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life).
The Fifth and Sixth symphonies compared
PThese two symphonies contrast greatly in mood. The Fifth Symphony is stormy and dramatic. The Sixth reserves its fury for the storm, in which the trombones. piccolo, and timpani make their first appearance in the piece. Otherwise, it is cheerful and as undramatic as Beethoven could make it.
The Fifth Symphony uses only keys closely related to C minor. The first and third movements often feel like they want to resolve to C major, but Beethoven restrains the tendency and winds up in C major only in the finale. Emotionally, it appears to depict Beethoven’s struggle with his failing hearing.
The Sixth Symphony has little material in minor at all, apart from the storm, and relies on more distant keys from the F major tonic. Its sunny disposition depicts the beauty and, for the most part, serenity of nature. Beethoven loved to leave urban areas behind for regular walks, no matter the weather. The Pastoral Symphony may be a cheerful farewell to beloved sounds he could no longer hear well.
As different as the two symphonies appear, they have at least one interesting feature in common. The interval of a third is prominent in both. The Fifth Symphony opens with a motive of a descending third, which dominates the entire opening movement. In the Sixth Symphony, the various keys are related more by thirds than the traditional fifths. And the bird song section at the end of the second movement prominently features the same descending third as the Fifth Symphony.
The first performance of the Pastoral Symphony
Vienna had no permanent concert hall in Beethoven’s lifetime. It had a number of theaters, which were occasionally available for concerts, but only during Advent and Lent, when theatrical performances were forbidden.
When the Theatre an der Wien became available, Beethoven presented an enormous benefit concert for himself on December 22, 1808.
The theater, still used as an opera house to this day, was then only seven years old. It was considered the most comfortable theater in the whole German-speaking world—except, of course, in December it was not heated and therefore uncomfortably cold. New as it was, it was the venue for such early Beethoven premiers as the Second Symphony, Third Symphony (Eroica), the Violin Concerto, and Leonore, the first version of his only opera.
The program for the concert included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, portions of the C Minor Mass, a scene and aria called “Ah! perfido,” and the Choral Fantasy. He could still hear well enough to play the solo part in the concerto and fantasy and also improvise. The entire concert took four hours.
Four hours of symphonic music seems overwhelming nowadays. The length was not unusual in Beethoven’s time. Still, most concerts that long featured familiar music, not premieres of four long works in a style considered difficult. The concert as a whole was a fiasco. One critic favorable to Beethoven noted “that one may have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one.”
Theater an der Wien had a very fine orchestra by Vienna’s standards, but it was engaged that day at another benefit concert at the Burgtheater. Therefore, Beethoven had to recruit a pickup orchestra to play all this music. Almost certainly, however, the theater’s trombonists were available. Beethoven composed only a few works with trombone parts. No one else in Vienna used them any more frequently.
Because so few works required trombone, trombonists in the theater orchestras usually played some other instrument most of the time. In 1801, trumpeter Franz Hörbeder served as principal trombonist at Theater an der Wien. Someone named Rust played second, and Joseph Adelmann played third. Adelmann died in 1803, and apparently the theater had only two trombonists available until 1807, when Anton Segner occupied the seat. Philip Schmidt took Rust’s place in May 1808.
According to most sources, Beethoven composed the Sixth immediately after finishing the Fifth. I have to wonder if he didn’t at least work out the orchestration of the Sixth Symphony before finishing the Fifth. The Pastoral Symphony includes only the parts played by Hörbeder and Rust (or Schmidt). The Fifth also has a part for Segner.
It is easy enough to figure that, having decided on two trombone parts, Beethoven would decide not to reorchestrate when Segner was hired. But why would Beethoven write one symphony with three trombone parts and immediately follow it with another with only two if he had three trombonists available.
In fact Pastoral Symphony opened the program, and the review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung calls it no. 5.
Structure of Symphony no. 6, Pastoral
A friend of Beethoven who spent the summer of 1815 walking in the countryside with him recalled that he had never met anyone who enjoyed all the details of nature as much as Beethoven. Beethoven himself agreed, writing, “No one can love the country as much as I do.”
Beethoven started sketching his Sixth Symphony as early as 1802 but did not start to work on it in earnest until 1808.
First movement: “Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country”
Like all symphonies of the time, the Pastoral Symphony begins with a sonata form for the first movement. Classical sonata form is inherently dramatic, depending as it does, on a contrast and eventually clash of keys.
The first part, called the exposition, introduces the thematic material and, in the process, modulates from the nominal key of the work to another key, often with a new theme. For a sonata movement in a major key, the second key is usually another major key a fifth higher, called the dominant. Classical composers always repeated the exposition to make sure the audience could be familiar with the themes. Mozart and Haydn marked off the first and second theme groups and other structural points with pauses so the audience could easily follow the structure. Beethoven began the Romantic practice of hiding the seams.
We can think of sonata form as moving from one key to the other very directly and then returning to the first key with great difficulty. This return journey is called the development. Ordinarily the development tears the themes apart into smaller motives and goes through a number of new keys in a way that creates dramatic tension. Once it manages to return to the opening key, the final section, called recapitulation, puts all the themes back together and presents them all in the original key, thus relieving the tension.
In the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven subverts the audience’s expectations by minimizing the dramatic tension of the development. All is peaceful and calm, a vacation from urban bustle.
Second movement: Scene by a brook
Having arrived in the country, Beethoven invites the audience to imagine pausing to listen to a brook. His sketch book has the phrases “murmur of the stream” and “the more water, the deeper the tone.” The texture becomes fuller before the end of the movement, suggesting walking from the headwaters of a small brook downstream to where it becomes a more majestic river.
Although Beethoven noted that his object in the symphony was more to present a feeling than paint a picture, the second movement ends with very literal bird calls. The score indicates that the flute represents a nightingale (symbolic of love), the clarinet a cuckoo (foreshadowing the coming of summer), and the oboe a quail (recalling Beethoven’s earlier song in which a quail worships God.)
I mentioned earlier that Beethoven’s sonata structures obliterate the pauses that earlier composers used to separate one section from another. In the Pastoral Symphony, he also eliminates the pauses that would ordinarily separate the last three movements.
Third movement: Joyful gathering of country folk
As a city dweller, Beethoven had to seek the solace of rural areas. Some people are lucky enough to live there and appreciate the opportunity. Of course, gatherings of people can disturb the tranquility of nature. These country folk are having a party and dancing.
Ordinarily, the third movement of a Beethoven symphony is a dance movement (usually a scherzo) in a simple ternary form (ABA). Here, the middle section returns, requiring another statement of the opening (ABABA). “Scherzo” means joke, and the humor here suggests a dance band that isn’t very good. The oboe has trouble landing on the downbeat, while the bassoon slavishly sticks with the beat and apparently knows only two notes.
The last appearance of the A section is shortened. It is also very loud and very fast as the band tries to finish the tune before everyone must scatter for the coming rainstorm.
Fourth movement: Storm
The storm follows the scherzo without pause. Minor tonality temporarily sweeps aside the sunny and peaceful major keys that dominate the symphony as a whole. To heighten the drama, Beethoven introduces piccolo, timpani, and two trombones, intrusive instruments not heard earlier in the symphony.
As the storm subsides, the flute and oboe respond with a tenderness that may indicate the appearance of a rainbow. Then, as suddenly as it started, the storm ends and the music moves immediately to the finale.
Fifth movement: Shepherds’ song: happy and thankful feelings after the storm
Take away the title, and this movement could have served as the finale of a conventional four-movement symphony. One would hardly expect any symphony, especially one by Beethoven, to be entirely free of conflict. Without the storm, the symphony might come across as too bland, and what other movement is expendable? No one had ever written a five-movement symphony before, but the whole conception of the Pastoral Symphony requires five movements.
Shepherds, possibly a different group of people from the dancers of the third movement, express their thanks to God, and we hear their rustic alphorns and bagpipes. Of the instruments introduced in the fourth movement, only the trombones appear in the finale. Here, instead of lending noise to a storm, they take on more of their conventional religious aspect.
Beethoven’s Brass Players: New Discoveries in Composer-Performer Relations. / Theodore Albrecht, Historic Brass Society Journal 18 (2006): 47-72.
A guide to Beethoven: Symphony no. 6, “Pastoral” / David A. McConnell, The Classic Review. June 30, 2022.
Symphony no. 5 and Symphony no. 6: the yin yang of symphonies / caters, Talk Classical. December 18, 2019
Too much of a good thing? Beethoven’s 1808 Akademie in Vienna / Mark Pullinger, Bachtrack. January 8, 2020