In Praise of Beethoven’s Sixth

Shortly after my music-playing apparatus was repaired a concert was broadcast that included the immensely likeable Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony of Beethoven. It contains five sections, that it may be going to far to describe as movements. The first expresses Beethoven’s feelings on arriving in the country; these are light-hearted and serene, the notes of the music often not quite forming themselves into a tune. The following scene at the creek begins with strings producing the sound of flowing water, and later the woodwinds mimic the calls of birds. Then a joyous reunion of country folk takes place, at which a band is playing dance music (oddly enough in 2/4 time), and apparently not making a good job of it; amazingly, Beethoven writes bad music. We have the sense not just of hearing this music but overhearing something taking place independently of the symphony. The proceedings are interrupted by the famous storm, which is often taken to be the fourth movement, although the silence that comes before it could be interpreted as one of Beethoven’s famous dramatic pauses as easily as a gap between movements. Depending on resources and personal inclination, conductors handle the storm in different ways, and that I heard was one of the quieter ones, but the thunder and lightning (in that order!) were as always impressive. The lyrical concluding section expresses appropriately thankful feelings after the storm.

The story line of the symphony, its sustained cheerfulness and the excitement of the storm make this a wonderful piece for children, but it operates at other levels. While I resist the impulse to call the units ‘movements’, they certainly function as a sequence of five, and I’ve been struck at how they can be laid out: the first describes feelings (Gefuehle), the second describes the real world, the third (in a way anticipated by the mimicry towards the end of the second) coincides with that world, the fourth describes it again, and with the fifth we’re back to feelings.  Hence there’s a pattern, abcba, describing a movement from inner to outer and back again. It’s not new for a composer to take interest in the surrounding world (think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons), but the kind of interest taken in one’s own responses to it strikes me as typically Romantic, and I think that a feeling of self-awareness also occurs in being conscious of standing outside a scene, as we do at the joyous reunion, rather than being fully absorbed in it. Such self-consciousness may or may not be a good thing!


  • I believe this form of self-consciousness is definitely a good thing! If we didn’t allow for such small “self indulgences”, I doubt humanity’s notion of art and culture would be around for much longer. The creation and appreciation of art is a “self indulgence” that helps define our species. 😉

    Cheers – Vasilios

  • Thank you for your comments, Vasilios. Yes, the creativity that produces art and our ability to appreciate it are some of the defining characteristics of being human, like the capacity for laughter! But perhaps there’s a risk of becoming interested in one’s feelings at the expense of the world out there; it would be terrible if a kind of self-indulgence of the emotions were to run riot.

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