Beethoven’s 6th symphony – a decided favourite of listeners all over the world – begins confidently and without drama, but after just four bars it comes to a pause. Why?
The conductor Norman Del Mar writes that, “The Pastoral” Symphony is one in which “there should be no rough edges, no sharp dynamic gestures; the whole approach to the music from the conductor and orchestra alike needs to reflect geniality and affection” (Conducting Beethoven, Volume 1, 1992). Indeed, that is the mood of the symphony as a whole, interrupted only by a terrific storm – the first in orchestral writing since “Summer” in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (1723).
Beethoven composed the “Pastoral” Symphony in 1808, although ideas for part of the rustic dance in the symphony and another labelled “the murmuring of the brook” appear in a sketchbook of 1803. Beethoven was ruminating about programme music and made notes to himself that, “The listener should be able to discover the situations for himself” and “every kind of painting loses by being carried too far in instrumental music.”
According to George Grove in Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (1896), Beethoven loved nature, always preferring the countryside to the city. One anecdote says that he refused to lodge at the house of a coppersmith because there were no trees nearby. On another occasion he got angry with a miller who, seeing him coming through heavy rain, ran to him with an umbrella. Beethoven brushed it aside.
There are other stories, confirmed by those who knew him, that from early morning to late at night Beethoven roamed the fields, sketchbook in hand, shouting and flourishing his arms, completely carried away by the inspiration of the moment. His diaries note seeing daybreak in the woods through the yet undisturbed night mists and later addressing the setting sun with lines from a song.
The “Pastoral” Symphony evolved in the vicinity of Heiligenstadt, now part of Döbling, Vienna’s 19th district. In Beethoven’s time it lay outside the city and he had lived there from April to October 1802 while coming to terms with his growing deafness. Today, between Heiligenstadt and the village of Nussdorf, conveniently situated next to a babbling brook called the Schreiberbach, stands a statue of Beethoven.
The “Pastoral” Symphony was first performed on 22 December 1808 in the Theater an der Wien. It has five movements all of which carry titles confirming that the symphony is “a recollection of country life”. The first is marked “Awakening of happy feelings on getting out into the country”. The second, “By the brook”. The third, “Merry gathering of country folk”. The fourth, “Thunderstorm”, leading into the fifth, “Shepherd’s Song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm”.
The symphony begins with the composer setting off joyfully along a path that leads to the woods. After just a few steps, he comes to a halt. Is it because he has forgotten something? Is it to breathe the fresh morning air? Is it to note down an idea? Perhaps.
I think he set off and almost immediately spied a wild flower – perhaps a Red Campion. In a moment of rapture, he stopped to smell it before continuing on his way. And so does the symphony.