Program notes: Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony

Tuesday, August 2, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed: 1806
Length: c. 14 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (including offstage trumpet), 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

The original title of Beethoven’s only opera was Leonore, after the name of the heroine who disguises herself as a prison guard named Fidelio in an attempt to rescue her husband, Florestan, who is being held in a Spanish dungeon. Beethoven composed four different overtures for the opera, and the titles and sequencing of these overtures are particularly confusing, partly because they were published in a different order than they were written, and partly because of faulty research. Chronologically the second to be composed, tonight’s overture, Leonore No. 3, was so brilliant and dramatic that, in the words of renowned musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey, it nearly “annihilate[d] the first act.” Beethoven’s fourth overture was composed for his 1814 revision of the opera, now entitled Fidelio, and it’s the one played when the full opera is performed. However, many believe that Leonore No. 3, which we hear tonight, is the greatest of the four overtures.

What to listen for

About halfway through the Overture, which begins in the setting of the dungeon, the proceedings are suddenly interrupted by an offstage trumpet. This trumpet call marks the arrival of a minister whose appearance leads to Florestan being freed, avoiding bloodshed. A joyful celebration of freedom and love follows. However, the trumpet call also gives away that key plot point at the very beginning of the story, and this may be one reason Beethoven eventually abandoned Leonore No. 3 as the opera’s overture.

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed: 1808
Length: c. 43 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings

Beethoven’s Sixth is his only symphony with descriptive titles attached to the movements. Given the significant role nature took on in his life, it is not surprising that Beethoven chose the countryside as the theme of his one programmatic symphony. Nearly every summer, Beethoven would plan an extended stay in rural surroundings, taking long walks by himself in the woods. Alone with his thoughts, these walks invigorated him spiritually and creatively. He incorporated multiple lengthy strolls into his composing routine every day, bringing small sketchbooks with him, and he would jot down ideas as they came to him. By the time Beethoven was writing the Sixth Symphony, his deafness—which caused him such anguish—was profound, and communing with nature seemed to offer him solace, as he wrote: “My miserable hearing does not trouble me here. In the country it seems as if every tree said to me: ‘Holy! holy!’ Who can give complete expression to the ecstasy of the woods! O, the sweet stillness of the woods!”

Indeed, the solace of the Sixth is in sharp contrast to the epic struggle, and ultimate triumph, of the Fifth, which was written in the same period. Musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey insightfully noted that the character of the Sixth is no less powerful than that of the Fifth, but simply different: “[The Sixth] has the enormous strength of someone who knows how to relax.” Both symphonies were premiered at the same concert in December 1808, a ridiculously ambitious affair that also included premieres of his Piano Concerto No. 4 and his Choral Fantasy, and a number of his other recent compositions.

Beethoven was careful to warn his audiences about taking the titles of the movements too literally. As he was composing the piece, he wrote, “Every kind of tone-painting loses its effect by being pushed too far in instrumental music…anyone who has the faintest idea of rural life will have no need of descriptive titles.” He later added that the titles were meant to be “more an expression of feeling than tone painting.”

What to listen for

  • First movement: long, sustained notes in the bass (“pedal tones”) throughout the movement create a sense of stillness, magically evoking the calming effects of Beethoven’s solitary walks in the country.
  • Second movement: the end of this movement contains three birdsongs, marked specifically in the score as the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe), and the cuckoo (clarinet).
  • Third movement: there are three dances depicted in this “merry gathering of country folk.” Individual wind and brass instruments sing the second of these, evoking the image of a single couple dancing for the group.
  • Fourth movement: watch the low strings working hard to produce the rumbling of the thunder in the sky (at one point, the cellos are called on to play 240 notes each in the span of under 20 seconds!).
  • Fifth movement: in a symphony overflowing with wondrous moments, the last third of the finale might top them all. Two lengthy swells, beginning with the low strings and bassoons and adding in the rest of the orchestra before receding, set up the final simple expressions of gratitude by the shepherds.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi