I would suggest listening to only one movement at a time at first, perhaps starting with Allegro ma non troppo – F major , simply because it is the “beginning of the story”. But please listen with excellent speakers or the best earphones you can. Then feel free to do anything you want while listening, and see if you can hear the magic.
It tells a story…
This is the only Beethoven symphony containing programmatic content. In other words, it tells us something through images, and Beethoven wrote down ideas at the beginning of each movement. This recording by Celibidache is the most satisfying I’ve ever heard, and it’s because he takes the whole thing so slowly. For me he makes time stop. For me it seems to both go on forever, in the best possible way, and yet it is over before I want it to be over.
Segiu Celibidache/Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
- Allegro ma non troppo – F major 11:30 (0:30 -12:30)
- Andante molto mosso – Bb major 16:12 (12:18 -28:30)
- Allegro – F major 6:35 (28:30 – 35:05 )
- Allegro – F minor 4:53 (35:05-39:58)
- Allegretto – F major 11:37 (39:58 – 51:35)
Total time: 50:47
- 1 piccolo (fourth movement only), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons
- 2 horns in F and B♭, 2 trumpets in C and E♭ (third, fourth, and fifth movements only)
- 2 trombones (alto and tenor, fourth and fifth movements only)
- timpani (fourth movement only)
1st movement: Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande – Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside
For some reason I don’t think about form at all in this symphony, not in the whole thing. I was very young when I first heard it, and now it just seems like an old friend. I have to turn on my brain and turn off the enjoyment to figure it out, but it is some kind of sonata form, meaning exposition (A B, repeat of AB), development, A B again (recapitulation) and coda (ending), but the whole thing is so seamless that it just seems to flow effortlessly. It is without doubt one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, just this first movement.
2nd movement: Beethoven’s description says: Szene am Bach – Scene by the brook
The second movement is another sonata-form movement, this time in 12/8 and in the key of Bb major, IV chord key of the whole symphony. It begins with the strings playing a motif that clearly imitates flowing water. The cello section is divided, with just two players playing the flowing-water notes on muted instruments, and the remaining cellos playing mostly pizzicato notes together with the double basses.
Toward the end is a cadenza for woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets).
3rd movement: Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute – Merry gathering of the country folk
The third movement is a scherzo in 3/4, but that is about form and tempo. It’s really more than that, a wonderful country dance. It is in A B A B A form, but the last A is abruptly cut off.
The final return of the A theme has an even faster tempo, then suddenly then ends abruptly, without a pause. There is an incredible range of ideas about how fast this movement should go.
4th movement: Storm: Gewitter, Sturm – Thunder, storm
The fourth movement, in F minor, depicts a violent thunderstorm with painstaking realism, building from just a few drops of rain to a great climax with thunder, lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain. The storm eventually passes, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. There is a seamless transition into the final movement. This movement parallels Mozart’s procedure in his String Quintet in G minor K. 516 of 1787, which likewise prefaces a serene final movement with a long, emotionally stormy introduction.
5th movement: Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm – Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm
The finale is in 6/8 time, in this case representing the shepherds’ song of thanksgiving. Allegretto just means a bit fast, sort of between andante and allegro, and the end is essentially a prayer.
The rest of the story:
Beethoven was in his 30s when he wrote this symphony, which he composed between 1802 and 1808 – age 31-37
The first sketches of his Pastoral Symphony appeared in 1802. It was composed simultaneously with Beethoven’s more fiery 5th symphony. Both symphonies were premiered in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 22 December 1808.
He loved to walk in the country side:
Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locations. The composer said that the 6th symphony is
“…more the expression of feeling than painting”
The 6th symphony was used in the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia, but with alterations in the length of the piece made by conductor Leopold Stokowski.
The symphony has an extra movement:
There are five movements rather than the four typical of symphonies of the Classical era. Beethoven wrote a programmatic title at the beginning of each movement.
There are modern performances of Beethoven’s symphonies that are very fast, and there are number of logical reasons for playing them faster than they used to be played decades ago. There is also a move to use so-called “historic instruments”, and the sound of these older instruments can be very convincing. I would put Gardiner’s recordings right at the top of them. But this symphony is the least convincing than all the others with the older instruments, and in general you will find those who really are familiar with Beethoven leaning toward Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter and Szell, all “old school” conductors. Andrés Orozco-Estrada is right there with the old school conductors, slower, more relaxed.
Furtwängler is considered by many to be one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century – I agree – but unfortunately he did not live long enough to record in stereo, so the sound is harder to listen to.