The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, composed concurrently in 1808, were premiered together (with their numbers reversed from the order of their composition) as part of a four-hour extravaganza Beethoven produced in Vienna. The following year, they were published in composition order, with adjacent opus numbers. On the surface, the two symphonies seem unlikely twin siblings: the Fifth Symphony is dark and dramatic, with its imposing “fate” motive and triumphant progress to a major-key resolution, while the Sixth Symphony is relaxed and bucolic, full of extra-musical associations.
Beethoven’s Sixth was one of the first programmatic symphonies, with descriptive movement headings that evoked specific ideas and images. But this was not, for the most part, literal tone-painting, as in later works such as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or the Symphonic Poems of Liszt and Strauss. Beethoven, for his part, made this distinction in the title he inscribed on the parts for the initial performance, which read “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life: More an Expression of Feeling than Painting.”
Beethoven’s journals and letters reveal his love of nature, as when he wrote in 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.” Recognizing and appreciating the natural world was a cornerstone of the Romantic sensibility, as espoused by Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau. With the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven joined a common thread in music, art, and literature of the early nineteenth century that rhapsodized on the beauty and grandeur of the natural world, with a reverence that was in no small part spiritual.
What the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies share, along with other works from Beethoven’s “middle” period, is rigorous economy and unity in the musical language. Just as the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony influence every measure of the opening movement, the Sixth Symphony builds an expansive essay out of a seemingly naïve theme. The first movement, characterized as the “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country,” enters bashfully, with four quiet measures that trail off. Fragments of this figure build slowly, basking in long stretches of unmoving harmony and resonant pedal figures. The development section, often an opportunity for increased turbulence and activity, here sinks deeper into a country calm, savoring each radiant change of harmony.
The second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” establishes a lapping triplet pulse under another mere wisp of melody. The idyllic scene ends with a trio of birdcalls from the woodwinds, representing a nightingale, quail and cuckoo. From here, the symphony diverges from a typical four-movement pattern. There is a Scherzo-like third movement, “Merry assembly of country folk,” but the rollicking dance music halts unresolved and is supplanted by the first staccato raindrops of the “Thunderstorm.” Fearful dissonances and thunderous timpani strikes make for a convincing tempest, until it trails off in one last upward patter from the flute. A clarinet takes over to establish the sing-song contours of the “Shepherds’ song; happy grateful feelings after the storm.” This tune, at once humble and heroic, returns the symphony to its pastoral calm. Near the end, a hymn-like variant lends a deeper resonance to this warm-hearted conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2013
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