What We Think We Know about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 with Hot Stampers

More of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven 



In our opinion this is the best sounding Beethoven 6th Symphony ever recorded. It is the most beautiful of them all, and has long been my personal favorite of the nine Beethoven composed.

Ansermet’s performance is clearly definitive to my ear as well. The gorgeous hall the Suisse Romande recorded in was possibly the best recording venue of its day, possibly of all time; more amazing sounding recordings were made there than any other hall we know of. There is a richness to the sound that exceeds all others, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least.

It’s as wide, deep and three-dimensional as any, which is of course all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the weight and power of the brass and the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

We have a section of classical recordings that we nominate for The Best Performances with Top Quality Sound, and this record is of course one of its founding members.

Other Pressings

The best pressings from Readers Digest set with Leibowitz conducting were very good but no match for Ansermet and the legendary Orchestre De La Suisse Romande and the lovely Victoria Hall in which they recorded.

We have liked Monteux on RCA for the 6th in the past. We do not believe the best pressings are competitive with this London.

The ’60 Decca/London cycle with Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Phil has always sounded flat and modern to us on every pressing we’ve played.

Notes on Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

Initial sketches for the Sixth Symphony are found as early as 1803, among the sketches for the “Eroica” Symphony. But the actual composition of the piece took place in 1808, simultaneously with that of the Fifth; like the Fifth, it was dedicated to Beethoven’s principal patrons of the time, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky. Both symphonies received first performances late that year in Vienna, at one of the famous “marathon” concerts that were common to the period. In addition to the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the four-hour (!) concert included the Fourth Piano Concerto, miscellaneous hymns and arias, a movement from the Mass in C, a piano improvisation by Beethoven himself, and the “Choral” Fantasy.

“There we sat,” wrote the composer Friedrich Reichardt, who was in attendance, “in the bitterest cold, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing-and still more of a loud thing. … Poor Beethoven, who from this concert was having the first and only scant profit that he could find in a whole year, had found much opposition and little support in the rehearsals and performance.” This most famous of concerts was, according to several reports, seriously under-rehearsed; as a result its success was not unequivocal.

In writing a programmatic symphony that evoked sounds and moods of the countryside, Beethoven was drawing upon a well-established genre. Scholars have unearthed hundreds of 18th-century symphonies, mainly from Bohemia and Austria, that are pictorial or programmatic, and doubtless Beethoven was familiar with a number of these – not just the oft-cited symphony of Justin Heinrich Knecht called Le Portrait musical de la nature (whose movement titles Beethoven appears virtually to have plagiarized for his own symphony) or Dittersdorf’s Metamorphosis symphonies based on Ovid, but probably others as well. Nevertheless it required Beethoven’s “golden touch” to catapult the genre of program symphony into the 19th century and beyond.

But Beethoven cautioned us against too literal a “reading” of the Sixth Symphony. “Carried too far,” he scribbled into his sketch-book for the piece, “all ‘painting’ in instrumental music will fail.” Another of these curious sketch-book inscriptions characterizes the Sixth as “a matter more of feelings than of painting in sounds.” Many commentators have tried to downplay the importance of the composer’s own movement-titles – under a mistaken late-19th-century notion that “program” music is somehow inferior to “absolute” music. Yet for all Beethoven’s denial of a detailed program for the Sixth, in the end he seems to have created a set of images that are so vivid that one finds them impossible to ignore.

Pastoral Symphony-or Recollections of Country Life, reads the composer’s title for the Sixth Symphony. Clearly Beethoven’s passionate love for the outdoors is reflected in the piece; for evidence one need look no further than the movement titles. Granted, one can listen happily to the “Pastoral” without a thought to these titles-for the piece contains some of Beethoven’s most penetratingly beautiful music. But who can hear the “Tempest” movement and mistake it for anything other than a violent thunderstorm? Who could listen to the woodwind solos at the end of the “Scene by the brook” without imagining birdcalls?

Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler recounts an affecting story (which he might have made up, as he did many of the things he wrote) about a walk he took with the composer in April 1823, in the countryside around Vienna: “Passing through the pleasant meadow-valley between Heiligenstadt and Grinzing, which is traversed by a gently murmuring brook that hurries down from a nearby mountain and is bordered with high elms, Beethoven repeatedly stopped and let his glances roam, full of happiness, over the glorious landscape. … ‘Here I composed the Scene by the brook,’ Beethoven said, ‘and the yellowhammers up there, the quails, nightingales, and cuckoos around about, composed with me.’ “

The Sixth is in five movements-atypical for a Classical symphony but not unusual for a programmatic one. The Allegro, ma non troppo, perhaps the least “pictorial” movement of the Symphony, nevertheless puts the listener in a pastoral frame of mind from the outset – with its drone bass and its “strolling” theme. It features two main subjects and two closing themes; the extraordinary development section, based primarily on a fragmented variant of the opening subject, revels in a sort of incessant repetition aimed, perhaps, at evoking the feeling of taking a very long walk. The Andante molto mosso, a set of free variations on a theme, serves as the Symphony’s slow movement. In the manuscript score Beethoven has actually labeled the birdcalls mentioned above: “Nightingale” for the flute passage, “Quail” for the oboe solo, and “Cuckoo” for the clarinet.

The central Allegro – Presto is a scherzo, lively and full of piping country-dances; what should become the end of the movement leads directly into the turbulent Allegro, with its torrential gusts and crashing thunder. “It is no longer merely a wind and rainstorm,” writes Berlioz, waxing apocalyptic, “it is a frightful cataclysm, the universal deluge, the end of the world.” Again the music continues without pause into the next movement (Allegretto), which begins with the shepherd’s “yodel” (clarinet) and ends with a richly scored hymn of thanksgiving that echoes Haydn’s Seasons finale of a decade before – the pious gratitude of a simple farmer who knows that even the thunderstorm’s violence is an essential part of nature’s cycle.

Paul Horsley

Wikipedia Background

Beethoven was a lover of nature who spent a great deal of his time on walks in the country. He frequently left Vienna to work in rural locales.

The first sketches of the Pastoral Symphony appeared in 1802. It was composed simultaneously with Beethoven’s more famous—and more fiery—Fifth Symphony. Both symphonies were premiered in a long and under-rehearsed concert in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, on 22 December 1808. The work has become one of the central works of the symphonic repertoire. It is frequently performed, and has been often recorded.

The composer said, the Sixth Symphony is “more the expression of feeling than painting”, a point underlined by the title of the first movement (“Awakening of cheerful feelings…”).

Description of movements

I. Allegro ma non troppo

The symphony begins with a placid and cheerful movement depicting the composer’s feelings as he arrives in the country. The work is in sonata form, and its motifs are extensively developed. At several points Beethoven builds up orchestral texture by multiple repetitions of very short motifs. Yvonne Frindle commented, “the infinite repetition of pattern in nature [is] conveyed through rhythmic cells, its immensity through sustained pure harmonies.”

II. Andante molto mosso

This movement, titled by Beethoven “By the brook,” is held to be one of Beethoven’s most beautiful and serene compositions. It is in a 12/8 meter and the key is B flat major, the subdominant of the main key of the work, and is in sonata form.At the opening the strings play a motif that clearly imitates flowing water. The cello section is divided, with just two players playing the flowing-water notes on muted instruments, with the remaining cellos playing mostly pizzicato notes together with the double basses.

Toward the end of the movement, in the coda that begins at measure 124, there is a cadenza for three woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls at measure 130. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet).

III. Allegro

This is a scherzo, which depicts country folk dancing and reveling. It is in F major, returning to the main key of the symphony.The form of the movement is an altered version of the usual form for scherzi, in that the trio appears twice rather than just once, and the third appearance of the scherzo theme is truncated. Perhaps to accommodate this rather spacious arrangement, Beethoven did not mark the usual internal repeats of the scherzo and the trio. Theodor Adorno identifies this scherzo as the model for the scherzos by Anton Bruckner.

At one point in the movement Beethoven uses a melody that sounds vaguely like a quotation from the folk song “Zu Lauterbach”.

The final return of Scherzo conveys a riotous atmosphere with a faster tempo. The movement ends abruptly, leading without a pause into the fourth movement.

IV. Allegro

The fourth movement, in F minor, depicts a violent thunderstorm with painstaking realism, building from just a few drops of rain to a great climax with thunder, lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain.The storm eventually passes, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. There is a seamless transition into the final movement.

This movement parallels Mozart’s procedure in his String Quintet in G minor K. 516 of (1787), which likewise prefaces a serene final movement with a long, emotionally stormy introduction.

V. Allegretto

The finale is in F major and is in 6/8 time. The movement is written in sonata rondo form, meaning that the main theme appears in the tonic key at the beginning of the development as well as the exposition and the recapitulation. Like many classical finales, this movement emphasizes a symmetrical eight-bar theme, in this case representing the shepherds’ song of thanksgiving. The mood throughout is unmistakably joyful.The coda, which Antony Hopkins has called “arguably the finest music of the whole symphony,” starts quietly and gradually builds to an ecstatic culmination for the full orchestra (minus “storm instruments”), with the first violins playing very rapid triplet tremolo at the top of their range. There follows a fervent passage suggestive of prayer, marked by Beethoven “pianissimo, sotto voce”; most conductors slow the tempo for this passage. After a brief period of afterglow, the work ends with two emphatic F major chords.

Production and Engineering

James Walker was the producer, Roy Wallace the engineer for these sessions from October of 1959 in Geneva’s glorious Victoria Hall. It’s yet another remarkable disc from the Golden Age of Vacuum Tube Recording.

The gorgeous hall the Suisse Romande recorded in was possibly the best recording venue of its day, perhaps of all time. More amazing sounding recordings were made there than in any other hall we know of. There is a solidity and richness to the sound that goes beyond all the other recordings we have played, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least.

It’s as wide, deep and three-dimensional as any, which is of course all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the weight and power of the brass, combined with timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

This is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. None of them, I repeat not a single one, can begin to sound the way this record sounds. (Before you put them in storage or on Ebay please play them against this pressing so that you can be confident in you decision to rid yourself of their mediocrity.)