Nature served as a lifelong inspiration to Beethoven, who did much of his composition during his daily walks. In nature Beethoven observed many characteristics as found in his compositions: rhythm, beauty, power, life, death, order, structure, chaos, and harmony. It only seems natural that he would choose to treat his musical thoughts and feelings of nature symphonically.
In a note to the publisher, Beethoven directed that the title of this symphony was to be "Pastoral Symphony or Reminiscence of Rural Life, More an Expression of Feeling Than a Painting." While elements of nature are clearly present in this symphony, Beethoven did not intend to catalogue and present "sounds of nature." Rather, he used the sounds and inspiration of nature to provide the musical materials which he treated symphonically. Each movement was given a subtitle, and are fairly descriptive of the overall scene. However, Beethoven cautions us that "all tone-painting will lose its effect in instrumental music if pushed too far." It is hoped that the following musical analysis will open new avenues of thinking about the piece, and not limit the experience of this masterwork for the listener.
I. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country
This is a standard Beethoven Sonata-allegro form in which the coda contains a second development section. The overall mood is uncharacteristically light, but is never short on melodic and rhythmic invention. Particularly interesting is Beethoven's insertion of triplets in a duple metered movement. The first appearance of the triplets comes attached to the final chord of the first theme group. It sounds innocent enough, but with its fourth appearance, we clearly see it is a very persistent parasite the will not be easily dispatched. In the second theme group, eighth-notes seem powerless against transformation. The upper-strings' accompanimental doodles become triplets, then sixteenths. Immediately following, the horns, in the second of two parallel passages, become infected. Just before the closing theme, the triplets stage a momentary coup and take over the entire orchestra. This is immediately challenged by the strings and backed up by the winds, who succeed in suppressing the triplets into a subordinate role.
In the uneasy development section the presence of the triplets seems to incense the four-squareness of the music, twice causing violent outbursts in the orchestra. Seemingly satisfied that the triplets are defeated, the first theme sounds contentedly in the winds. At the end of the Fortissimo climax, the triplets send a warning message -- we're back!
The violins, so confident in their duple passage work, are caught off guard at the recapitulation. Now they play a triplet harmonic noodling figure over the first theme. Only the full force of the tutti orchestra can quiet the triplets, but they are now too strong to destroy. At the beginning of the coda, the string section rejoices in their duple marcato presentation of the first theme, but the triplets have captured and forever altered the closing theme. These forces battle, occasionally one side or the other dominating. Not willing to fight to the death, the triplets go off chuckling in the clarinet (much like the legendary prankster Til Eulenspiegel), leaving the last few bars to what is left of the duple forces.
II. Scene by the brook
In this charming movement, one can imagine taking a leisurely stroll by a stream. One hears the sounds of water, the breeze, sees the dappled sunlight sparkling off the water, and the feelings of peacefulness and oneness with nature. The affects that nature has on the psyche, moods, and thoughts of a person could be heard in the many subtle changes in orchestration, dynamics, rhythms, and colors. The walk takes you past various changes in the stream, from sunlight to the darkness of a dense wood and back again. In the concluding bars of the movement can be heard the calls of three birds of the forest.
III. Merry Assembly of Countryfolk
Beethoven felt a keen kinship, not only with nature, but with the country folk as well. His belief in the ideals of brotherhood and equality were well documented, as was his support for Napoleon, at least until the moment when Napoleon declared himself emperor. Beethoven never felt comfortable in the drawing rooms of the Viennese aristocracy, with their powdered wigs and forced formality.
In this scherzo, we come upon a scene of a peasant celebration. Dancing and merry-making abound. This music is diametrically opposed to the stately aristocratic minuet. Instead we hear the heavy pounding of stomping feet. This music quiets down to a section featuring solos from the wind section. Beethoven is here imitating the performance style of a band of Austrian folk musicians playing a stylized dance of the day. [Note particularly the boom-chick-chick accompaniment of the violins.] This leads into a contrasting dance in two.
After a brief accelerando, we hear the unrestrained sounds of country fiddles sawing out a dance. The music is heavily peppered with accents, depicting more foot stomping and high-stepping dancing This scherzo is in the form of ABABA¹, like those of the Third, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies. The final A is interrupted by an unexpected visitor.
IV. Lightning, thunderstorm
Suddenly, the skies darken as a thunderstorm approaches. The celebration comes to an abrupt halt as the peasants seek the safety of their homes. This is arguably one of the finest representations of a storm in orchestral literature. The electric, hair-standing-on-end atmosphere of an impending thunderstorm is vividly depicted in the opening bars of the movement. Without warning, the wind begins to blow violently, lightening and thunder are everywhere. Eventually the storm passes, and the grateful peasants intone a chorale of thanks to God. This music segues into the finale.
This movement is representative of one of the brilliant orchestrations from this era. Beethoven uses many instruments in ways that are quite unusual. For instance, the celli and basses are asked to play very rapid notes in their lowest range. In no way will this, based on the capabilities of the instruments, be heard cleanly. What one hears, instead, is a deep rumbling resembling distant thunder. We see the brilliant flash of lightning in the rapid ascending notes of the violins, and hear the rain and swirling winds in the arpeggiated tremolo string writing. It was also for this movement that Beethoven saved the special timbres of trombones, piccolo, and timpani for extra punch and fuller orchestral sound.
V. Shepherd's Song -- Happy, grateful feelings after the storm
The finale, in rondo variation form, features solos by the flute, clarinet, and horn. The gentle, lyric A theme begins in the violins, the second statement crescendos to a full-orchestra restatement. This phrase elides with a contrasting, more passionate B theme begun in the celli. The A theme returns with slightly varied accompanimental figures, and leads into the C theme, a charming duet played on clarinets and bassoons. A re-transition section features the A theme passed between the celli and winds lead to a restatement of ABA, with variations, and, after a glorious climax, lead into a hauntingly beautiful coda. We hear the A theme played as a chorale, and at the end of this beautiful postcard from the country, Beethoven bids us farewell with a muted horn call in the distance.