Brussels Philharmonic | Programme Notes: Beethoven 6 'Pastorale'

Beethoven 6 'Pastorale'



Felix Mendelssohn The Hebrides, Op. 26, 'Fingal's Cave' (1833)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ in F major, Op. 68 (1808)
Paul Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943)

[all programme notes]


15.06.2024 FLAGEY

“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

An ode 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.

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.

Beethoven took walks most afternoons in Vienna’s parks and in the large field just outside the city walls. For part of each year he moved to a suburban village such as Heiligenstadt or retreated to a spa. (“To stay in the city in summer is torture for me,” he once remarked.) As he wandered about he would not only soak in nature but also compose. While he worked out his most detailed ideas for compositions in large-format sketchbooks at home, he typically carried around small pocketbooks as well.

In full force

Beethoven was at the most prolific stage of his career when he wrote these symphonies during his thirties. 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 at a famous concert he presented on December 22, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien.

“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.”

The Hebrides

Let's jump forward a quarter of a century: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed The Hebrides in 1832. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy: he wrote poetry, painted, composed, conducted, and played the piano. Guided by his father, the time had come at the age of 20 for the grand European tour that would culminate his education. In April 1829, the moment arrived: Mendelssohn departed for England and later traveled on to Scotland. One of the major tourist attractions of the nineteenth century was Fingal's Cave on the Hebridean island of Staffa. The cave was discovered in 1772 and named after a hero from Scottish mythology. The romantics saw this cave as a natural Gothic cathedral, a classical 'temple of God'. The name Fingal's Cave stuck with the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, who adopted it for their publication of Mendelssohn's concert overture. Since then, The Hebrides has also been known by this alternative title.

It is said that Mendelssohn conceived the opening theme of his Hebrides Overture immediately upon seeing the island: “To give you an idea of how wonderful I felt on the Hebrides, the following came to my mind.” The leitmotif introduced by the viola instantly evokes associations with the waves perpetually crashing against the rocks. Rarely has the restless play of the sea, the wind, screeching seagulls, and the sun breaking through the clouds been so phenomenally rendered in music. Johannes Brahms also expressed his admiration for Mendelssohn's music:

“I would gladly give all I have written, to have composed something like the Hebrides Overture."


Paul Hindemith composed his Symphonic Metamorphosis in 1940, shortly after fleeing Nazi Germany to settle in the U.S. This vibrant orchestral piece is based on obscure themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Initially intended as ballet music, it was reworked into a standalone composition after artistic disagreements. Premiered in 1944, it became an instant hit. Hindemith retained Weber's melodies but infused them with modern elements, creating a fresh and innovative sound.

[read more on]