Concert Notes

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”

Notes by TŌN horn player Daniel Itzkowitz

Growing up, my grandfather was the only family member who shared a deep appreciation for classical music with me. Once I got over the fact that orchestral music “had no words,” we would bond over discussing his favorite pieces. While his preference was Brahms, Beethoven was a close second. I distinctly recall him insisting that “all the odd Beethoven symphonies are better than the even ones,” a perspective that resonates with many. While excerpts from Beethoven’s more widely-known symphonies like the Fifth or Ninth have found their way into numerous blockbuster movies like The Breakfast Club or Die Hard, his Sixth Symphony, unfortunately, hasn’t received the same widespread love, aside from an appearance in Fantasia and brief excerpts in an episode of The Simpsons. Nonetheless, the Sixth Symphony, often overshadowed by the dramatic knocking of fate opening the Fifth or the jubilant ode to joy in the Ninth, holds a significant place in the orchestral canon.

Titled “Pastoral” by Beethoven, this symphony stands as a tribute to the natural world, and is often considered one of the earliest examples of programmatic symphonic repertoire. Beethoven held a great appreciation for nature, and while based in Vienna he frequented the countryside when composing. Unconventionally, he structured this symphony with five movements as opposed to the traditional four, each bearing titles evoking specific imagery of the outdoors.

Beethoven’s programmatic approach to composing this masterwork laid the foundation for many composers who followed suit. In the wake of Beethoven’s Sixth, a plethora of programmatic symphonic works emerged. Composers like Richard Strauss with his Alpine Symphony and Bedřich Smetana with his Moldau also drew inspiration from the natural world, adding their own unique perspectives to the compositional device. Many other composers created programmatic symphonic repertoire about literature, art, personal experiences, and beyond.

Do I agree with my grandfather on this Beethoven symphony being less worthy of being called a masterwork than its more famous counterparts? I do not. Not only does it hold historical significance as a pioneering piece in programmatic composition, but it also stands alone as a masterwork in its own right. Beethoven’s ability to vividly depict the imagery he envisioned is unparalleled. With the Sixth Symphony, he ventured into new territory, and achieved brilliance on his very first attempt.