Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (Pastoral)

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Last updated: 13/10/2009
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Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (Pastoral) in the context of Romanticism

[For the purpose of keeping the word count to a minimum, the word “bar” or “bars” shall be written as “#” adjacent to the number(s).]

“Romanticism” is a term whose roots can be applied to the latter half of the 18th century, when Western Europe experienced a movement that greatly influenced art, music and literature. It is arguably the most widespread of its kind in both origin and influence since the end of the Middle Ages, and was in part connected with the politics of the time. The abolition of feudalism during the French Revolution and the principles and values of the Age of Enlightenment had created a decline in the importance of aristocracy, and the rise of the middle class had given way to freedom for the common people. Free and unbounded exploration of divinity was given precedence over organised religion, and reason became the primary authority.

The idea of ‘wandering’ became prevalent during this period, and with it a greater liberalisation of expression, ideas and visions. More emphasis was placed on the imagination and elements of both the natural and the supernatural. Part of the reason for such a popularity in the supernatural and all things magical and mystical, was to create a form of escapism from the dismal and bleak realities of life under the oppression of war and hardship. It was a time of exploration – of the physical world, of the metaphysical, of intellect, of philosophy, and of the arts.

The concept of examining one’s own personality and emotional response alongside that of nature was one that was widespread at the time. 19th century Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich took this observation as the foremost interest in his art, and was concerned with not only the exploration of the pleasure of viewing a beautiful scene, but also the element of religious mysticism – that through the study and contemplation of nature one might become reunited with the spiritual self. He was quoted as saying,

“The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead”[1].

The theme of ‘wandering’ is largely expressed in David’s paintings, for example, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’.

Other key figures of the Romantic period were: German writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, (most famous for his two-part drama Faust, in which exploration of the supernatural battle between good and evil is depicted) who was a major source of inspiration through his literary works[2] and arguably the most influential figure in German literature[3]; Jean Paul Richter, another German writer, whose view was that, “visible things were but the symbols of the invisible[4]”; Friedrich Schiller, a German poet, playwright, historian and philosopher who, among other things, wrote papers on ethics and aesthetics and developed the idea of educating the emotions by reason[5]; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution[6]; and Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher whose most famous work, ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ investigates the boundaries and composition of reason and became a centre point of 19th century philosophy[7].

Music also underwent some significant changes during this period, and was a reflection of what was going on in other areas of the arts at the time. Despite the obstructive and hazardous conditions of war, there was a continuous demand for music publications and instruments, as public interest widened to a stage where the music trade reached record levels of thriving. Musicians were becoming known as independent artists in their own rights and were regarded as highly distinguished and with a lot more favour, unlike in Haydn and Mozart’s time where they were bound by service and low social status.

The orchestra increased in both size and stature in order to accommodate the rise of the symphony as it overtook chamber music in importance, and to more successfully deliver and communicate ideas and express emotion through a wider variety of sound. The number of instruments increased, as did their range of pitches and timbre. Harmonies became richer, and dissonance and modulation increased in use and importance.

Composers began to move away from the somewhat ‘held’ structure of the classical style to embrace a more free and expressive approach. One such composer, who relates to both the classical and romantic eras, and who actually successfully bridged the gap between the two, was Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven’s symphonic works overlap from the classical into the romantic period, with the third being the symphony generally considered to be the turning point from classicism to romanticism, being about twice as long in length as Haydn or Mozart’s symphonies, and more emotionally expressive. It is this breadth of emotion that sets it apart from earlier symphonies of Beethoven and of other (classical) composers. However, although his third symphony (titled ‘Sinfonia Eroica’ – Heroic Symphony) contains aspects of romanticism in this way, it is Beethoven’s sixth symphony (the ‘Pastorale’) that more definitely fits this category.

One particular and significant way in which this sixth symphony differed innovatively from its predecessors was its programmatic nature – that is, the music was intended to evoke within the listener a depiction of an image, scene or story (as opposed to absolute music, which is to be appreciated in its own rights without reference to anything other than itself). There had been plenty of descriptive and illustrative music before Beethoven’s time (for example, portrayals of nature in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons), but the concept was particularly popular during the Romantic period. Beethoven had reservations in writing program music, stating that the whole of his Pastoral Symphony, “can be perceived without description – it is more an expression of feelings rather than tone-painting”[8], and that “Tone-painting when pushed too far loses its value”[9]. Nevertheless, it was given the title, ‘Recollections of Country Life’ at its premiere performance, and contains a storyline as well as titles for each of the separate movements, although Beethoven also declared,

“It is left to the listener to find out the situations ... Anyone that has formed any ideal of rural life does not need titles to imagine the composer’s intentions.”[10]

 Composed and premiered simultaneously with his fifth in 1808, the Pastoral Symphony very clearly portrays the composer’s love of nature - a self-confessed delight and contentment in being at one with the natural world –

“How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass and the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give man the resonance he needs.”[11]

This sentiment embodies the wave of nationalism that was beginning to move with force all over Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the discovery, collection and publication of old national melodies became a vigorous duty-bound mission, bearing as much importance as that of new compositions. Indeed, Beethoven was one of a number of composers whose services were engaged to supply accompaniments to increase the attractiveness of various editions of Scottish, Irish and Welsh melodies (under publication by George Thomson of Edinburgh) around this time.

With a little exploration and analysis, one can see quite plainly how Beethoven manages to encapsulate the scene of country life in his Pastoral symphony and how it differs from symphonies of the classical era. To begin with, one obvious observation is the inclusion of five movements instead of the conventional four more ordinarily used in symphonic works. The third movement flows directly into the fourth, and the fourth movement flows directly into the fifth, thereby linking them.

In the Romantic era, it became common and expected practice to present the layout of the first movement of multi-movement compositions as sonata-allegro form. During this period, the recognisable features of sonata form were plainly identified and became standardized, and definite descriptions of the form were written by academic scholars (e.g. Adolph Bernhard Marx). The monothematic exposition favoured by composers such as Haydn became largely redundant, as the Classical method of placing importance on tonal and cadential differences was replaced by the Romantic take on sonata form. The Romantic procedure did not rely quite so heavily on the Classical common way of creating tension, which was to suspend or evade a cadence after announcing its expectation. This is because the greatly increased harmonic vocabulary of the 19th century meant that the method of toying with a cadence no longer carried as much suspense or surprise. Therefore, other techniques such as pedal points, dissonances and alteration of main themes were used. The contrast in character between the themes of first and second subject groups became very important. One can clearly observe the typical attributes of Romantic sonata form in the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which tends to comply with the compositional conventions of symphonic (and other) writing of the time. Elements of a programmatic nature are also evidently present here.

This first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) bears the title, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”, and begins in F major, a key often used by composers when writing pastoral works. The entire movement is in Romantic sonata form, and the simple but effective method of taking a thematic idea or motif and placing it in differing contexts (e.g. key; instrumentation; format) as well as altering and/or developing it during repetition, is one that is prevalent throughout the entire movement. This, along with the wide range of and sometimes sudden and dramatic changes in dynamics give the impression of the varying degrees of the appearance and atmosphere of the countryside (e.g. the surging of waters or the rise and fall of hills) - perhaps, even, the varying degrees of feeling one might experience upon arrival in the country. (This essay will not go into much detail about how the movement follows sonata form code, as it is not essentially relevant within this discussion.) The cello and viola commence the movement with pedal notes of F and C respectively, which generate the sound of the drone of bagpipes – an instrument very much related to native folk songs and country dances. These pedal notes reappear in various forms and keys throughout the movement, not just in the cello and viola parts, but in other instrumental parts also (e.g. horns, #29-36; second violins, #33-36; double bass, #37-53; bassoons and clarinets, #139-142; horns, bassoons and clarinets, #151-162). The first subject group (introduced at the beginning of the movement) consists of two themes that vary in character and quality (as is expected of Romantic sonata form). The first is a simple and pleasantly cheerful motif that seems to represent the embracing joy of succumbing to the charms of the countryside. The second (#67) is a more lilting and lyrical idea, which could hint at the peace one can find in the beauty of nature. At #37 the texture is full and rich with extensive orchestration, which demonstrates the expanded orchestra of the time, and could signify the lusciousness and abundance of the countryside. The variety of articulation (e.g. the staccato of the strings in #151 compared to their legato notes in #346) also helps to illustrate the many different aspects and characterisations of nature. The grace notes employed by the flutes in #42 (and later utilized in #46-52; #317 and #321-327), and perhaps the trill of the first violins in #282-284, are very indicative of birdsong. The figure played by the first violins at the development section (#151) is used extensively throughout the section, moving between different instruments by imitation. This call-and-response-type technique adds to the image of birds (and other creatures) communicating with each other (also portrayed by the figure in #86-87). Also at #151, cross-rhythms are used alternately between instruments (three quavers against two, using a triplet figure), which helps to include an element of instability and excitement. The use of third relationships (#163: B flat to D major; #209: G to E major), a method that became popular among Beethoven and his contemporaries and which some would argue is one of Beethoven’s more personal marks[12], also adds to the anticipation and excitement. The pleasant-sounding intervals of thirds and sixths are used frequently throughout the movement, which further exemplifies the pleasure being portrayed. The standard procedure of finishing the movement in the starting key gives a feeling of completeness and satisfaction.

The second movement (Andante molto mosso) is titled “Scene by the brook”, and certainly it is not too difficult here to allow the music to ‘paint’ the picture of a small stream in the country. The movement is in B flat major (a major key being generally more peaceful than a minor one), and begins with legato quaver figures in the strings, while the first violins sing the lyrical melody. The gracefulness of these quaver figures effectively captures the nature of flowing water, and the course of movement is further portrayed by the semiquaver figures of the strings that are introduced in #5. The grace notes and trills of the first violins in #3 and #7 respectively (which are then used throughout the movement by various instruments) are, as in the first movement, very like birdsong. The intervals (6ths, 5ths and 3rds) used by the violas, second violins, horns and clarinets in #19-20 sound like fanfares, which one could say is suggestive of some royal or military public gathering happening somewhere far off in the distance. The movement goes through a number of modulations, sometimes fairly rapidly (e.g. #22-25, B flat to F major, and #25-27, F to C major), which keeps in character with the swift motion and direction of running water. The use of third relationships (e.g. #68-69, G to E flat major) further enhances this. The coda at the end of the movement distinctly identifies (by text) the flute, oboe and clarinet as nightingale, quail and cuckoo respectively, and they play out their roles very effectively. The movement as a whole takes contrasting themes and motifs, and alters, develops and embellishes them, thereby adding colour and interest to the overall depiction.

The third movement (Allegro) defies convention and consists of a kind of peasants’ merrymaking dance rather than the more typical Minuet and Trio. It resembles its title of “Happy gathering of villagers” very aptly, as it begins in F major with a joyful and sprightly introduction played staccato by the strings, before modulating very swiftly to D major (#8), where a cheerful legato melody begins. These two themes are repeated and developed, going through modulations, before arriving at #59 where a new, loud and triumphant subject is introduced, with some bars being played in unison. #91 gives rise to a new melody played by the oboe, and the texture here is thin enough to clearly discern the somewhat uncertain-sounding notes of the bassoon, tentatively played intermittently. This gives the image of a music band member being unsure of his entry, or perhaps a villager dancing out of place. At #165 the tempo and time signature change, and the music becomes stylistic of a square dance. The harmony is simple (largely consisting of I, IV and V chords), and the strings claim much of the quick rhythms while the woodwind accompany with chords, both short and sustained. This section is constantly very loud throughout with frequent use of ‘sf’, and syncopation is used in #194-196. All of these details create the sense of a jubilant and raucous get-together. After a return to the first and second subjects, it moves straight into movement four.

There is plenty of ‘picture-painting’ in the fourth movement (Allegro), which was composed as a sort of ‘extra’ before the final movement. Simply titled “Thunder-storm”, that is exactly what it portrays, from its introductory tension-inducing tremolo (threat of thunder, #1) right up to the ending diminuendo (storm dying down, #140). The entire movement is very chromatic, with cross-rhythm (four semiquavers against five) figures in the lower strings generally being supported by either quaver ‘sf’ chords (lightning flash) or very sustained chords in the other instruments. Tremolo is employed almost constantly throughout, executed in various forms, including scales (lower strings, #75) and arpeggios (violins, #78), to provide tension. Other techniques (e.g. triplet figures, double basses, #19; chromatic slides, first violins, #5) help to create this uneasy anticipation. Other elements of storm-like quality are: staccato quaver-figure scales (patter of raindrops, #3); short, ascending arpeggio figures (lightning flash, first violins, #33); timpani trills (thunder rolls, #21); tonal modulations while generally being in a minor key; and the general range in dynamics, from ‘pp’ to ‘ff’, sometimes abruptly, indicating the rise, swell and fall of an unpredictable storm.  As the movement dies down and the opening ‘raindrops’ motif is turned into a hymn-like theme, the last few raindrops (flutes, #154-155) lead us on to the fifth and final movement.

The final movement (Allegretto), titled, “Shepherd’s song. Grateful thanks to the Almighty after the storm”, brings us back to the pastoral nature of the first movement. It has the key of F major, and also begins with a pedal chord in the violas and then the cellos (like a drone). The clarinet’s introduction and the thematic melody of the first violins in #9, recur throughout the entire movement, supported by chords and other harmonic embellishments, and interchanging between different instruments. This is basically another example of ideas being introduced, repeated, altered, developed and reiterated. The texture is generally thick throughout, and the overall feeling is one of happiness and contentment. After a series of rapid modulations (#219-237), the movement settles down before moving from ‘pp’ to ‘ff’, finishing with a triumphant perfect cadence in F major.

In conclusion, Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, although adhering to Classical style in many ways, represents much of what the Romantic movement sought to uphold: it is programmatic, vastly expressive, unconventional (in some ways), and very emotion-provoking. It may follow the Classical blueprint to a fairly large extent (except, perhaps, in the fourth movement), but Beethoven giving specific illustrations as to what we are to experience is enough to interpret it, on the whole, as being Romantic. It is perhaps for these reasons that, despite its initial frosty reception by its first audience (sounding somewhat tame and insipid compared to the blazing dynamic of the fifth symphony), the Pastoral Symphony has gone on to be one of the most favoured works in the symphonic repertoire.




Beethoven, Symphony No.6, Op.68, Edition Eulenburg, No. 407 (no date)


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Symphony No.6, Beethoven Symphonien


The New Oxford History of Music – The Age of Beethoven 1790-1830, Volume VIII

Internet (websites)

(Accessed between January and April 2009)

Chad, Crisswell, ‘Romanticism in Music’, (April 2006)

Green, Aaron, ‘What is the difference between a classical and a romantic symphony?’, (©2009

Huscher, Phillip, ‘Symphony No.6 in F Major, Op.68 (Pastoral)’, (2006)

Ku, Anne, ‘Programme Notes - Beethoven’s 6th Symphony in F major, Op 68, “The Pastoral”’ (March 2006)

Lewis, Hackett, ‘The European Dream Of Progress And Enlightenment’, (1992)

©SACE Board of South Australia 200, musc-ae-063, ‘Beethoven Symphony No.6‘, (April 2009)

Wyn Jones, David, ‘Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony’, (no date)

‘1001 Classical Recordings; Ludvig van Beethoven – Symphony No.6, “Pastoral” (1808)’, (November 2008)

Age of Enlightenment’, (April 2009)

Bagpipes’,  (April 2009)

Classical/Romantic Symphony?’, (October 2008)

Donald Francis Tovey’,  (2009)

Fanfare’, (March 2009)

Feudalism’,  (April 2009)

French Revolution’, (April 2009)

History of sonata form’,  (November 2008)

Ludwig van Beethoven’, (April 2009)

Program Music’,  (April 2009)

Programme Music’, (2009)

Romanticism’, (April 2009)

Romanticism (music)’, (2009)

Romantic Music’,  (December 2008)

Romantic Music’, (April 2009)

Sonata form’, (April 2009)

Symphony’, (April 2009)

Symphony No.3 (Beethoven)’, (April 2009)

Symphony No. 6. The Pastoral Symphony’, (2004-2006)

The Romantic Era’,  (no date)

The Symphony – An Interactive Guide’,  (no date)

Turkish March in 4th Mvmt of 9th Symphony - What was Beethoven Thinking?’, The Beethoven Reference Site, (2000-2009) 

What are the differences between classical and romantic music?’, (2009)

What is the Age of Enlightenment?’, (2002)



[1] ‘Caspar David Friedrich’, (April 2009)

[2] ‘Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’, (April 2009)

[3] ‘Romantic Music – Part Four’, (no date)

[4] ‘Jean Paul’, (March 2009)

[5] ‘Friedrich Schiller’, (April 2009)

[6] ’Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, (April 2009)

[7] ‘Immanuel Kant’, (April 2009)

[8] ‘Program music’, (April 2009)

[9] ‘Beethoven, Symphony No.6, Op.68’, Edition Eulenburg, No. 407 (Score, page I, no date)

[10] ‘Symphony No. 6 (Beethoven)’, (April 2009)

[11] Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, “The Pastoral”,  (2004-2006)

[12] Dorak, M.Tevfik, ‘Beethoven’,  (May 2003)


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