Beethoven's Pastoral
Selections from Má Vlast (My Country)
Vyŝehrad (The High Castle)
Vlatava (The Moldau)
Blaník Bedrich Smetana

Most of us identify Czech music immediately with Antonin Dvořák. The Czechs themselves regard Dvořák's older compatriot, Bedrich Smetana, as the father of Czech music and their first major proponent of nationalism. Unlike Dvořák (who, early in his career, played viola in Smetana's orchestra) Smetana never received international recognition or great material success during his lifetime. Moreover, his life was dominated by misfortune and great tragedy. He lost his first wife and a five-year-old daughter when he was still young. Growing deafness, disastrous for a musician, tormented him increasingly during the 1870s. By 1874, he was completely deaf, continuing to suffer from high-pitched noises that no doctor could quiet. Eventually he lost his sanity, and died in a mental asylum.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, modern day Czechoslovakia, including Smetana's Bohemia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by Hapsburg monarchs. Across Europe, many nations were discovering in their native folk music and dance rhythms the materials for an individual musical style. Nationalism in music was largely a reaction to German and Austrian dominance of musical forms. A staunch patriot, Smetana found in composing the outlet for his deep love of Bohemia. Most of his compositions are programmatic, inspired by an event in his life or an extra-musical association.

Má Vlast was composed over a period of several years in the 1870s. Smetana probably began the first segment, Vyšehrad, in 1872, then set it aside in favor of the operas Libuse and The Two Widows. He made a great deal of progress on the cycle in 1874 and 1875, completing four sections. Originally he had a four-movement scheme in mind, intending that the work would conclude with From Bohemia's Woods and Fields and referring to it as a tetralogy in his correspondence. In summer 1878, however, he returned to the project, determined to expand it with an additional two movements. Tábor and Blaník were completed in March 1879, with a dedication of the entire group to the city of Prague.

Despite this patchy history, Má Vlast is a unified cycle, both musically and spiritually. The six tone poems encompass Czech legend and landscape, geography and history, evoking both people and places. Best known by far is the second movement, Vltava (The Moldau), a favorite of most symphony-goers. When heard within the context of the entire cycle, The Moldau has greater impact. Its monumental scale and the panoramic sweep of Smetana's music represent virtually the entire history and heritage of a people. Smetana intended for the six tone poems to be performed together, and in his native land, Má Vlast is usually presented in its entirety. Since the late 1960s it has become traditional to open the annual Prague Spring Music Festival with a performance of the cycle.

Smetana wrote commentaries for each segment, and believed that these were essential to the listener's understanding of his music. Excerpts from his remarks are included in the summaries that follow, with the composer's translated words in italics.

I.  The High Castle is a tone picture of the castle in Prague from which the earliest Czech monarchy presided. The half-legendary rock towering above the Vltava, awakening the poet’s mind dreams of its glory and final fall as the original seat of Bohemia’s rulers and kings, the harp of the bard Lumir echoing within the halls of the castle. The opening melody in the harp – B-flat, E-flat, D, B-flat – reappears at the end of The Moldau and again at the end of Blaník. – Tony Nickle

II.  Vltava (The Moldau) is the river originating in southern Bohemia, converging with the River Elbe in the north. Smetana's music illustrates the actual course of the river. He begins with the two springs, one warm water, the other cold, that feed it, joining to run through rustic countryside. Notes in the score indicate the river's path as it meanders past forest hunting, a rustic village wedding, moonlight and the dance of water sprites, rapids, and a final salute as the river passes by the noble rock Vyšehrad of the first movement.

III.  Blaník, Smetana tells us, is a continuation of Tábor. Following their eventual defeat, the Hussite heroes took refuge in Blaník Mountain where, in heavy slumber, they awaited the moment when they would be called to the aid of their country....It is on the basis of the chorale melody that the resurrection of the Czech nation, its future happiness and glory, will evolve. The cycle thus concludes on a frankly nationalistic note of victorious triumph.

Má Vlast is unique, both within Smetana's oeuvre and in all music. Though he found his models for the programmatic symphonic poem in the works of Franz Liszt, Smetana's concept of the large cycle is quite original. Only a general precedent could be argued with Liszt's three-movement Faust Symphony (1854). Má Vlast is, in a way, a large-scale symphony as well as a collection of tone poems in light of the composer's physical and emotional torment during the years he composed it, Má Vlast is finally a touching tribute to the man who found solace and spiritual relief from the misery of his life in creating it.

Má Vlast is scored for piccolo; woodwinds in pairs; 4 horns; trumpets, trombones, bass trombone, tuba; timpani, triangle, cymbals, two harps and strings.

Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, "Pastoral"

Beethoven’s nine symphonies had enormous impact on the development of orchestral literature in the 19th century. Each one represented some aspect of experimentation and break with tradition. Beethoven's exploratory gestures were sometimes less adventuresome in the early works, but not always: the Second Symphony, for example, introduced for the first time the concept of a scherzo in lieu of a minuet. Similarly, the later symphonies tend to conform more with our perception of romantic rather than classic. Yet the Eighth, Beethoven's penultimate symphony, is in many ways his most conservative, and a conscious salute to 18th-century convention. 

Signature Work for the Romantic Era

None of his symphonies captured the public imagination more than the "Pastoral" in Beethoven's day. In the decades that followed his death, when Beethoven worship took on near-reverential proportions throughout Europe, the "Pastoral" remained his most popular symphony. Because it has five movements and uniquely incorporates programmatic titles we know to be the composer's own, it appealed to the poetic 19th-century imagination, even spawning a sub-genre of romantic imagery depicting Beethoven composing by a brook. Yet it still retains strong bonds to the Viennese symphonic tradition of Mozart and Haydn. Like the Eighth Symphony, whose tonality of F-major the Sixth shares, it is in many ways a reflective rather than innovative work, with stronger roots in the eighteenth century than have been generally acknowledged. Nevertheless, the "Pastoral" has generally been regarded as the most romantic of Beethoven's orchestral works. It exerted considerable influence on the generation of composers immediately following Beethoven.

Fraternal twins

A major factor in understanding the "Pastoral" Symphony is acquaintance with its companion piece, the Fifth. Beethoven labored on both symphonies in 1807 and 1808. They were premiered on the same concert in December 1808, published together as Opp. 67 and 68 in 1809, and share the same joint dedicatees: Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky. Yet two pieces further apart in spirit are difficult to imagine. The Sixth Symphony is almost devoid of the intense drama and battling with Fate that so dominate the Fifth. With the exception of the famous thunderstorm (the fourth movement), the "Pastoral" belies the strife-ridden Beethoven with which we are more familiar. Even a high-strung, emotionally charged personality such as his required its balancing moments, it appears.

Nature Lover and exercise fanatic

Beethoven was a great nature lover. In his day, the outskirts of Vienna were indeed pastoral. His contemporaries, among them his amanuensis Anton Schindler, reported that he delighted in long walks, even during the occasional inevitable thunderstorm that struck during the summer months. He would return from such an excursion invigorated, oblivious to the temporary discomfort and inconvenience of being thoroughly drenched. The mental image of Beethoven thus soaked is a far cry from the scenario that Walt Disney painted for us in Fantasia (1940) during the thrilling fourth movement.

Musicians’ Corner

The otherwise limpid and unruffled music of the "Pastoral" conforms to normal symphonic structure with the exception that we do not experience the degree of contrast between first and second themes. Schindler confirmed that Beethoven considered F major the only possibly key for such a topic as a "nature" symphony. F major was the traditional key for pastoral subjects. Beethoven's themes in both outer movements are uncharacteristically melodic, showing a more Schubertian side of his personality. Thus, in "Awakening of the cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside" we are left to placid contemplation of nature's unruffled beauty, without the tension customarily present in Beethoven's developments.

"Scene by the brook" succeeds in extending the tranquil atmosphere by means of the undulating triplets in the accompaniment, persuasively suggesting the gentle burbling of Beethoven's brook. The bird calls that precede the final three measures have generated much controversy over the years, but are best heard in their own naïve simplicity, as Beethoven undoubtedly intended them: flute as nightingale, oboe repeating the quail's plaintive cry, and clarinet tooting the unmistakable falling third of the cuckoo.

The most original formal innovation in the symphony is the linking of the final three segments without pause. The connecting thunderstorm provides natural cataclysm, musical drama, and a logical transition to the shepherd's song of thanks with which the symphony closes. Beethoven's orchestration includes some felicitous touches that are subtly rendered by omission rather than commission through much of the symphony. For example, he does not use trumpet until the scherzo ("Merry gathering of folk"), doubtless because its brassy edge would compromise the uniform serenity of the opening two movements. His introduction of full brass is all the more effective when they burst forth in the fury of the thunderstorm. Punctuation by piccolo at the high end and trombones at the low end lends a cosmic splendor to nature's wrath. Timpani, too, are reserved for the fourth movement, their only appearance in this otherwise tranquil work, so free of Beethovenian drama.


On the evening of 22 December, 1808, Beethoven gave a much-anticipated benefit concert at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. The music-making lasted a staggering four hours and included choral and solo vocal music as well as orchestral compositions. Its first part opened with the premiere of Beethoven’s newest symphony, his sixth, in F major. We know it as the “Pastoral.”

Next on the program came an aria, ‘Ah perfido!’ (later published as Op. 65); the Gloria from Beethoven’s Mass in C major; and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Following an interval, the marathon music-making continued with the Fifth Symphony – also a première – the Sanctus from the C major Mass, and a Piano Fantasia with the composer improvising, probably using material that he subsequently incorporated into the ‘Choral Fantasia.’ It must have been a very long night, but what a benchmark night for great music!

The combination of secular and sacred vocal music with solo improvisation and orchestral pieces was not unusual in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An evening of live music customarily included a wide variety of performing forces. This 1808 program has historical significance not only because of Beethoven’s titanic stature, but also because it included the premieres of two great symphonies.

© Laurie Shulman, 2019