Beethoven was one of the pivotal composers that helped music evolve from the Classical period into the age of Romanticism. When discussing Beethoven’s success in classical compositions, his symphonies are at the forefront of most if not every conversation. However, even within the topic of his symphonies, some are naturally highlighted more than others. For example, one could reproduce the melody from either the opening movement of the Fifth or the finale of the Ninth and a majority of people would be able to recognize them. While these two works were revolutionary in the progression of symphonic music, they were not the only ones to have played important roles in this sense. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a pivotal work in the expansion of music with programmatic characteristics. However, this symphony is one that sways between the realms of absolute and program music, for it can be identified with both categories of symphonic music. While it is highly unlikely that Beethoven viewed this composition as a truly programmatic piece, the Sixth Symphony has played an important role in the development of the symphony as a genre and influenced future composers of program music as well.
In order to discuss the significance of the Pastoral Symphony, one must first shed light on the difference of program music from that of absolute music. Author R. W. S. Mendl describes absolute music as being “that which gives us pleasure by the sheer delight in sound patterns without having any emotional, pictorial, or literary references” and claims that music with programmatic content “attempt[s] to represent scenes, objects, or events which exist apart from music.” It is hard to gauge the amount of programmatic works prior to the Pastoral Symphony, simply due to the fact that the term “program music” was not used as a defining category of music at the time of their release. An estimated eighth of all symphonic works that were presented before Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony were composed with the intent of conveying particular images or scenes. It would seem that with such a small percentage of varying works that were composed to contain programmatic ideas, labeling these works with a universal genre proved to be somewhat difficult. With the expansion of this style of writing, naturally the encompassing term “program music” would become associated with such pieces. Around the time of Beethoven’s composing, music was undergoing a shift from the Classical period into an age of Romanticism. Compositions were expanding in numerous ways regarding form, orchestration, and harmonies that were being implemented. Beethoven has been called “the innovator who broke through the limitations of Classicism without abandoning them.” This is truly evident through his symphonic writing. While on the cusp of the Romantic era, it became evident to him that the stature of absolute music was on the rise. Lewis Lockwood states that from a compositional aspect, Beethoven looked down upon ‘program music’ for its seemingly shallow representation of actual sounds and lack of originality. In response to this rising style of music, he composed the Pastoral Symphony with the intent of merging illustrative ideas of programmatic music with the structure of absolute music. Beethoven successfully achieved a blend of programmatic and absolute ideas with this symphony, in order to create an overall pastoral feeling of nature rather than depict any specific image. While the symphony and its five movements are labeled with titles that were created by Beethoven himself, he believed that the overall pastoral idea of this work could be perceived by the audience without a description that would usually be necessary with a complete program piece. It is this idea that helped Beethoven create the title as it can be viewed on early sketches, “Pastoral Symphony or Memories of Country Life: More the Expression of Feeling than Tone-Painting.” It would appear that...
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