It was Beethoven’s deep love of nature that was the inspiration for his Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale.” Countess Theresa of Brunswick, a student and close friend of Beethoven, wrote: “He loved to be alone with Nature, to make her his only confidante. When his brain was reeling with confused ideas, Nature at all times comforted him.” Others reported that Beethoven refused lodging without nearby trees, could not be dissuaded from long daily walks even in heavy rain (for which he refused an umbrella), that he wandered around jotting down themes in his ever-present sketchbooks, and that he assumed a frightening presence by lapsing into the appearance and behavior of a vagrant. In a letter he wrote, “My bad hearing does not trouble me here.”
Anton Felix Shindler reported that Beethoven’s favorite book was a copy, dog-eared from use, of Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature and Providence from which he copied passages such as: “One might rightly designate Nature the school of the heart; she clearly shows us our duties toward God and our neighbor.”
Heiligenstadt in Beethoven’s time
Although completed in the summer of 1808 in Weisenthal, near Heiligenstadt (then a rural resort near the bank of the Danube), sketches for the Pastoral are found in Beethoven’s notebooks as early as 1803. The most telling are two attempts that year to transcribe the sound of a stream, which eventually would emerge as the undulating introduction to the second movement. Although Beethoven provided descriptive titles for each movement, he cautioned against interpreting his intentions literally. He wrote in his sketchbooks: “The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations.” “Pastoral Symphony: no picture but something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused in men by the pleasure of the country, in which some feelings of country-life are set forth.”
Beethoven said from the outset that his sixth symphony be titled “Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of country life. More an expression of feeling than a painting.” The label is found in a letter Beethoven sent to his publisher in 1809. The titles of each movement were published in the program book at the first performance and on the engraved first violin part.
I. “Erwachen heiterer Gefühle bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande” (“Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”) – Beethoven draws us in immediately with a gorgeous flowing theme over a rustic open-fifth drone (think rustic bagpipes).
II. “Szene am Bach” (“Scene by the brook”) – The mood of calm contentment continues as the strings invoke the sound of a gently babbling brook. Barely a minute from the end of the movement, the steady lilting activity halts as Beethoven introduces three bird-songs: a nightingale in the flutes, a quail in the oboes and a cuckoo in the clarinets. Lest there be any doubt, he actually labels each one in the score.
III. “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (“Merry gathering of the country folk”) – We encounter country folk for the first time, intruding upon the solitude with a lusty peasant dance, though not for long. Nature will soon reassert itself to show who’s really the boss
IV. “Gewitter, Sturm” (“Storm, Tempest”) – Augmenting the instruments used so far, Beethoven adds a piccolo, trombones and tympani to add wind, rain, thunder and lightning to his musical portrayal of Nature’s tempest. The movement ends in a ravishing transition of a gently rising flute scale which signals the subsiding storm, parting clouds and the glorious light of the sun upon Nature’s pastoral landscape.
V. “Hirtengasang. Frohe, dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (“Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm”) – The final movement is perhaps the most heartfelt of all. It begins with an Alpine hunting call that evolves effortlessly into a bucolic Rondo, perhaps one of the simplest of Beethoven’s works, completely saturated with the joy of Nature.