Beethoven was one of the pivotal composers that helped music evolve from the Classical period into the age of Romanticism. When discussing Beethoven’s success in classical compositions, his symphonies are at the forefront of most if not every conversation. However, even within the topic of his symphonies, some are naturally highlighted more than others. For example, one could reproduce the melody from either the opening movement of the Fifth or the finale of the Ninth and a majority of people would be able to recognize them.
While these two works were revolutionary in the progression of symphonic music, they were not the only ones to have played important roles in this sense. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a pivotal work in the expansion of music with programmatic characteristics. However, this symphony is one that sways between the realms of absolute and program music, for it can be identified with both categories of symphonic music. While it is highly unlikely that Beethoven viewed this composition as a truly programmatic piece, the Sixth Symphony has played an important role in the development of the symphony as a genre and influenced future composers of program music as well.
In order to discuss the significance of the Pastoral Symphony, one must first shed light on the difference of program music from that of absolute music. Author R. W. S. Mendl describes absolute music as being “that which gives us pleasure by the sheer delight in sound patterns without having any emotional, pictorial, or literary references” and claims that music with programmatic content “attempt[s] to represent scenes, objects, or events which exist apart from music.” It is hard to gauge the amount of programmatic works prior to the Pastoral Symphony, simply due to the fact that the term “program music” was not used as a defining category of music at the time of their release. An estimated eighth of all symphonic works that were presented before Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony were composed with the intent of conveying particular images or scenes. It would seem that with such a small percentage of varying works that were composed to contain programmatic ideas, labeling these works with a universal genre proved to be somewhat difficult.
With the expansion of this style of writing, naturally the encompassing term “program music” would become associated with such pieces. Around the time of Beethoven’s composing, music was undergoing a shift from the Classical period into an age of Romanticism. Compositions were expanding in numerous ways regarding form, orchestration, and harmonies that were being implemented. Beethoven has been called “the innovator who broke through the limitations of Classicism without abandoning them.” This is truly evident through his symphonic writing. While on the cusp of the Romantic era, it became evident to him that the stature of absolute music was on the rise. Lewis Lockwood states that from a compositional aspect, Beethoven looked down upon ‘program music’ for its seemingly shallow representation of actual sounds and lack of originality. In response to this rising style of music, he composed the Pastoral Symphony with the intent of merging illustrative ideas of programmatic music with the structure of absolute music.
Beethoven successfully achieved a blend of programmatic and absolute ideas with this symphony, in order to create an overall pastoral feeling of nature rather than depict any specific image. While the symphony and its five movements are labeled with titles that were created by Beethoven himself, he believed that the overall pastoral idea of this work could be perceived by the audience without a description that would usually be necessary with a complete program piece. It is this idea that helped Beethoven create the title as it can be viewed on early sketches, “Pastoral Symphony or Memories of Country Life: More the Expression of Feeling than Tone-Painting.” It would appear that Beethoven intended to create a general mood that expresses the idea of nature rather than rely on specific images or one precise story to achieve this. Despite Beethoven’s general feelings towards program music and his conscious efforts to claim that the Sixth Symphony was more a collection of overall feelings rather than an attempt at creating one specific image, this piece is neither absolute or programmatic music but a blend of the two styles.
The first point in this argument would be the fact that Beethoven attached titles to each of the five movements within this symphony that depict certain scenes associated with pastoral ideas. The headings for the movements are as follow: ‘Pleasant feelings which are awakened in mankind on arrival in the country’, ‘Scene by the brook’, ‘Joyful fellowship of country folk’, ‘Thunder and Storm’, and ‘Beneficent feeling after the storm joined with thanks to the deity’. The mere fact that this symphony is the only one of his nine to contain subtitles attached to each movement that describe a scene of nature favors the thought of the symphony being more programmatic than absolute. However, if one were to look past the movement headings and take into consideration the content of the music, one would observe that the first two movements contain very little defined imagery. From an analytical perspective of the form, the first half of the symphony is rather conventional and resembles the absolute approach to music.
These movements hold true to the subheading for the symphony in regards to creating overall feelings rather than one precise painting or story. While there are compositional devices used to help convey the pastoral feeling within the first half of the symphony, it is not until the end of the second movement that Beethoven truly utilizes extra musical associations to convey imagery. This andante movement entitled ‘Scene by the brook’ ends with the flute, oboe, and clarinet engaged in a coda while imitating birdcalls. The composer himself labeled these three woodwind voices as a nightingale, a quail, and a cuckoo, respectively. These birdcalls have led to several debates, discussions, and even complete articles that attempt to analyze the true meaning of their existence in the piece. No matter how they are interpreted, one fact remains still.
The birdcalls act as segues from the symphonic first half to the more programmatic portion of the piece. The second half of the Sixth Symphony ventures away from conventional symphonic composing techniques found in the first two movements and includes more programmatic material. A strong indication of programmatic material resides within the later half of the symphony, where Beethoven includes several pastoral elements to enhance the musical imagery. The third movement consists of excited melodies in a compound-meter stylized scherzo representing country-dances. There are several points within this movement that have a drone in the bass that has been viewed as a depiction of bagpipes, an instrument that was frequently associated with the representation of pastoral ideas.
This jovial dance-like movement transitions into the fourth movement, which resembles a storm. The storm is “clearly an example of tone-painting” with its explosive minor chords that represent thunder and lightning and the constant patter of rain in the strings’ lines. Another significant feature added to the symphony that aids the pastoral image is the use of a ranz des vaches in the final movement. The ranz des vaches was an alpine horn call that herdsmen used to summon cattle. Author, David Wyn Jones notes in his book that “common features of ranz des vaches melodies are: triadic motion, dotted 6/8 meter…frequent use of grace notes, all harmonized mainly by the tonic triad.” While looking at the horn call that Beethoven uses within his symphony, one would notice that it meets all of the criteria that Jones listed.
The imagery associated with the Pastoral Symphony depicts scenes from nature, which was a subject close to Beethoven’s heart. Through journal entries and letters, one can deduce Beethoven’s love for nature. The following is a letter to Austrian musician and friend, Therese Malfatti in 1810 that depicts his feelings about the outdoors: How fortunate you are to have been able to go to the country so early in the year! Not before the 8th shall I be able to enjoy this delight: I look forward to it with childish anticipation. How glad I shall be to wander about amidst shrubs, forests, trees, herbs and rocks! No man can love the country as I do. For it is forests, trees and rocks that provide men with the resonance they desire.
Through this letter and several other firsthand records, one can clearly see Beethoven’s infatuation for the outdoors and the justifiable reason to compose a piece that commemorates this love. It makes sense that the first large-scale work that includes extensive amounts of imagery would reflect the thing that he admired most. Along with the simple beauty of nature, there were other factors that influenced Beethoven while writing his Sixth Symphony. The inclusion of nature and rustic ideas within music was not uncommon to composers prior to Beethoven. Pastoral subjects could be found in several theatrical presentations, operas, and intermezzo from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. One notable work that inspired the development of the Pastoral Symphony was an oratorio written by Franz Joseph Haydn, his teacher and mentor early on in his composing career. Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons, had an impact on Beethoven while he wrote his Sixth Symphony.
Haydn incorporates arpeggiated horn calls in the aria “Der muntre Hirt” that begin “a sequence of summer scenes that will [eventually lead] to the storm” later in the oratorio. Similarly, Beethoven opens the fifth and final movement of his symphony with an arpeggiated melody in the French horns that subsequently signify the end of the storm that took place in the previous movement. Another example of musical quotation that Beethoven purposely incorporated is an oboe melody that “has long been understood as a quotation from Bach’s chorale ‘Birch an, o Schönes Morgenlicht,’ from the second part of the Christmas Oratorio…” It is worth mentioning that prior to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, there had been other symphonic works to contain sections that resemble thunderstorms. Several commentaries on the Pastoral and its development discuss the 18th century German composer, Justin Heinrich Knecht and his piece entitled La Portrait musical de la nature.
This work seems to contain similar programmatic ideas as that of Beethoven’s symphony, including a thunderstorm that interrupts the overall peaceful feeling of nature that resumes after the storm. In addition to preceding compositions that influenced Beethoven’s writings, there has been the suggestion for the possible influence from the literary writings of Scottish poet James Thomson, mostly that of his well known poems collectively titled “The Seasons”. While there is no concrete evidence that Beethoven took inspiration from this poem, some scholars feel that the poem possibly had an underlying effect on the outcome of the Pastoral Symphony. The text of the poem discusses nature, progressing through the four seasons starting with spring and ending with winter.
The poem was translated to German in 1745 and served as a basis for Haydn’s oratorio that shares the same name. As discussed earlier, Beethoven drew inspiration from Haydn’s oratorio, so it would seem that he was indirectly influenced from the poetry of James Thomson for this reason even if he had no connection to the actual literature itself. So far there have been factors that support both sides of the argument in trying to define the Pastoral Symphony as either a work of absolute music, or one depicting tone painting. The mere fact that the piece contains an appropriate amount of material that justifies both categories, one should agree that this work could be viewed as the perfect synthesis of the two sides of the symphonic spectrum.
The next step in understanding the influence that the Pastoral Symphony had on future composers of both absolute and programmatic works would naturally be to look at the general reception of the premiere of this piece. The Sixth Symphony received its first public performance on December 22nd, 1808 along with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven worked on these two symphonies simultaneously in the years leading up to this concert. At this time however, the symphonies were labeled opposite of what they are viewed as today, which means that the Pastoral was written and performed as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, while the C-minor was viewed as his sixth. Over the course of time it would seem as though the Fifth Symphony has overpowered the Pastoral in the minds of audience members.
While this may be true to some extent today, at the time, critics were singing praises to this wonderful portrayal of nature through melody and harmony. A review of the score in the musical journal of the time, Allgemeine musikalishce Zeitung, was typical in saying such things as “this work of Beethoven, wonderful, original, and full of life, which can be placed without hesitation besides his other masterworks…” When comparing it to other compositions that focused on imagery of programmatic material, one critic claimed that “none of the musical paintings known until now can withstand comparison…” Overall, the piece was welcomed positively and viewed as a representation for composers who desired to use programmatic features.
Some of the compositional styles that would soon develop through the Romantic period can trace influence from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. When discussing compositions that drew inspiration from the Pastoral Symphony, one should mention Hector Berlioz’s programmatic work, Symphonie Fantastique. As a composer, Berlioz was an advocate for music with more programmatic tendencies and was viewed as a radical composer during his time. At one point in his career, Berlioz wrote critical reviews of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. When discussing the Sixth, he used descriptions such as, “delightful phrases [that] greet you, like the perfumed morning breeze” as well as “swarms of chattering birds in flight…” With such joyous descriptions that Berlioz gave, it comes as no surprise that he would find inspiration from this piece for his own writing. Author, Owen Jander views the second movement in Beethoven’s symphony entitled “Scene by the Brook” as an obvious “point of departure for the ‘Scene in the Meadows’ in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique”.
As mentioned earlier, Beethoven’s second movement has been the topic of several discussions concerning the Sixth Symphony, specifically, the imitation of birdcalls that can be found at the close of the movement. Jander believes the calls to symbolize Beethoven’s acceptance of his growing deafness and his own fate. If one is to agree with this interpretation, then the connection to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique becomes one that is easy to accept. Berlioz’s third movement, entitled “Scene in the Meadows” opens with the English horn and the oboe representing two shepherds that are calling to one another. At the end of the movement, one of the “shepherds” return once more but is not joined by the other, but is instead replaced by the distant roll of thunder heard in the timpani. Those familiar with the piece and its program know that the concluding two movements that follow represent a personal hell and damnation for the protagonist. The connection between both that of Beethoven’s and Berlioz’s works would be the idea that both composers are aware of their own fate and accept it through the illustration of music.
Another composer that was potentially influenced by the Pastoral Symphony was that of the German opera composer, Richard Wagner. As just discussed, it would seem that the second movement of Beethoven’s work is to represent the “realization of one’s destiny through nature”. In Wagner’s opera, Siegfried, there are scenes within the second act that take place in the forest. In which, the main character, Siegfried learns of his destiny from the ability to understand a forest bird. This situation is the exact opposite from that of Beethoven’s, where the composer realizes his destiny through the discovery that he can no longer hear. Two compositions that were separated by nearly one hundred years, both contain similar imagery that represents a person’s realization and acceptance of their destiny through nature. The chances of this being a coincidence seem rather unlikely. To say that that Beethoven’s Pastoral inspired Wagner’s use of nature within this opera would be a fair conclusion.
When discussing Beethoven, the Sixth Symphony may not be a piece that comes to mind right away; one might rather recall themes from other symphonies by him. However, the importance of this piece in the evolution of the symphony as a genre is too important to go overlooked. The mere fact that out of the nine symphonies that Beethoven wrote, the Sixth was the only one to receive a programmatic title and descriptive scenes attached to the movements is an indication at the significance of this work. It may not have directly influenced several composers in the years that followed as far as content is concerned, but Beethoven’s ability to combine aspects of program music with the absoluteness of a symphony opened the door to possibilities for future composers on both sides of the spectrum.