Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major (Op. 68), known as the Pastoral Symphony, was completed in 1808. One of Beethoven’s few works of programme music, the symphony was labelled at its first performance with the title “Recollections of Country Life”.
Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. In a letter to Therese Malfatti in the summer of 1808, Beethoven said “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.
He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locales. He was, however, not the first composer of his time to depict nature symphonically. For example, Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, premièred in 1802, likewise portrayed the loveliness of nature, dancing peasants, a thunderstorm, bird calls, and so on. Beethoven did not write another oratorio, but a symphony, and thus escaped from the overly-literal character that a libretto would have imposed. As the composer said, the Sixth Symphony is “a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds”.
The first sketches of this symphony appeared in 1802. The symphony has programmatic titles. Beethoven remarked “It is left to the listener to find out the situations … Anyone that has formed any idea of rural life does not need titles to imagine the composer’s intentions.”
This programmatic endeavour is clearly expressed through the suggestive title of the symphony, as well as through the titles of each segment of it, through this initiating the later direction of his programmatic symphonies and even of his symphonic poems.
When he found refuge in the midst of nature, he jotted down themes inspired by the trill of birds, the trickling of creeks or the rustle of leaves. In a notebook from 1803 was found an outline of a river’s trickling with the additional note: ” The greater the river, the more grave the tone.”
Beethoven rose much higher than his predecessors who tried to capture the gist of nature, because he places man with his feelings and sensitivity in the heart of nature. And this is confirmed by the very title he places on the cover of the first edition (Breitkopf & Hartel) and that is: “Pastoral-Sinfonie oder Erinnerung an das Landleben. (Mehr Ausdruck der Emphindung als Mahlerey.)” – “Pastoral Symphony or Recollection of the Life in the Countryside”.