Brussels Philharmonic | a hymn to nature

a hymn to nature

Beethoven spent most of the summer in Heiligenstadt, far away from the hustle and bustle of Vienna. The Pastoral Symphony - his Sixth - pays homage to nature as never before. Every movement is given a brief description of what the music is about. Yet Beethoven himself indicated that his music is the expression of the subjective feelings he felt about the beauty of nature and is not a real sounding of nature.

In the for that time atypical five-part symphony, Beethoven successively sketches the awakening of the land, a rustling brook, the gathering of people, a dramatic thunderstorm and a closing song of cheerful shepherds expressing their gratitude after the storm has passed.

Nobody loves the countryside as much as I do. That is certain; after all, forests, trees and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.
Beethoven in a letter, 1810

a concept with a past

By the time Beethoven composed the Sixth Symphony, illustrative music had a history stretching back for centuries, with pastoral themes being a particular favorite not just in music, but also in literature and the visual arts. Some of this tradition was familiar to Beethoven. There was, for example, a body of ‘characteristic’ symphonies. The movement titles that Beethoven provided in the Pastoral closely resemble those of Le Portrait musical de la nature, written nearly 25 years earlier by the long forgotten composer Justin Heinrich Knecht. More immediate models can be found in Haydn’s mature oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), enormously popular pieces in Vienna at the time. Beethoven had objected to some of Haydn’s more literal musical illustrations, which may partly account for his ambivalence regarding his own depiction of nature in the Sixth Symphony.

the fruit of ambition

Beethoven was at the most prolific stage of his career when he wrote these symphonies during his thirties: ‘I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time.’ As early as 1803, while composing the Eroica, he sketched some ideas that he later used in the Sixth Symphony. Over the next few years composition of the Pastoral overlapped with that of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, as well as with other major projects such as his opera Fidelio. The most intensive work on the Fifth was done in 1807 and spilled over into the next year, while that on the Sixth followed in the spring and summer.

Beethoven decided to premiere the two works together on a famous concert he presented on December 22, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien.