Symphony No.6

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No.6 in F major

Op. 68 • “Pastoral”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

For roughly 175 years, the music appreciation racket has told us that Beethoven composed symphonies in contrasting odd-even pairs after 1803, none more startling than the heaven-storming Fifth and bucolic Sixth. Originally, however, he assigned the designation of "No. 5" to the Pastoral for their shared debut on surely the most historic night in Western music, December 22, 1808. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the unheated Theater an der Wien, he premiered both symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, "Choral" Fantasy, "Ah! perfido!" (a concert aria from 1796), and introduced a Viennese audience to excerpts from the C major Mass, an Esterházy commission of 1807 that Prince Nicolaus II disliked when he heard it.

Beethoven began making specific notes for a "Sinfonia pastorale" in 1806, but didn't complete the work until 1808, in the village of Heiligenstadt northwest of Vienna. If this had been an unlikely hatchery in 1807 for the fist-brandishing Fifth Symphony, it perfectly suited -- as he noted in his sketchbook -- "recollections of country life...more the expression of feeling than of painting" in his ensuing woodwind-drenched symphony (although violins get first crack at nine of its 12 significant themes).

"Cheerful impressions wakened by arrival in the country" (Allegro ma non troppo, in F major, 2/4) is the first movement. It is in sonata form, pretty much by the book, with violins introducing all themes. The second-movement "Scene by the brook" (Andante molto moto, in B flat major and 12/8 time) is a Sonata structure again, but more relaxed, with a limpid main theme for violins and a bassoon sub-theme. In the coda, the flute impersonates a nightingale, the oboe a quail, and the clarinet a cuckoo. The third movement, "Merry gathering of country folk" (Allegro, 3/4 time, F major), is an expanded song-and-trio, with a 2/4 section in "tempo d'Allegro" that creates the effect of an ABCABCA structure, leading without pause to the fourth movement, "Thunderstorm; tempest" (Allegro; F minor, 4/4). From the first raindrop to last, this is purely depictive music. It is followed by a 10-bar chorale that segues the final "Shepherd's song; glad and grateful tidings after the storm" (Allegretto; F major, 6/8), a sonata-rondo, whose C-section some have called a development section. The fun includes a sly parody of amateur musicians before the long, progressively tranquil coda that ends with a pianistic gesture: two fortissimo chords.

Done