Best pastoral music: 5 works inspired by the countryside

Opera song

What is pastoral music?

Derived from the Latin word “pastor” – which means “shepherd” – pastoral music is, in short, that which depicts and celebrates the countryside. Since Roman times – notably when, through the poems of Virgil and Horace, the Emperor Augustus urged his people to rise up and head for the great outdoors – pastoral themes have been a constant in literature. , art and, of course, music.

Sometimes composers have depicted specific sounds of the countryside – the weather, for example, or birdsong – while on others they have opted for a more generic depiction of the countryside and the emotions it inspires. . Here are five of the most beautiful examples…

Best Pastoral Music

Handel Acis and Galatea (1718)

Composed for the entertainment of the ultra-wealthy Earl of Carnarvon and his guests at his out-of-town estate, Handel’s “pastoral opera” is based on a tale told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Acis, a shepherd, is in love with the nymph Galatea but, alas for him, with the formidable Cyclops, which puts the balm in the heart a little. Despite this, much of the work has an air of freshness and well-being, with the opening chorus “Oh, the pleasure of the plain” and Galatea’s following recitative, “Ye verdant plains and woody mountains” setting the tone for what is to come.

Recommended registration: Crowe/Curnyn

Beethoven’Pastoral Symphony No. 6 (1808)

When Viennese audiences heard the very first performance of Beethoven’s Sixth “Pastoral” Symphony in a chilling four-hour concert on December 22, 1808, BeethovenThe representation of the sunniest months and the joys of the countryside must have seemed a world apart. Unusually for him, the German composer gave each of the five movements of the symphony a written description to explain what is happening in the music: ‘Awakening of joyful feelings on arrival in the countryside’, ‘Scene at the edge of the brook’, ‘Happy gathering of country folk’, ‘Thunder, Storm’ and ‘Shepherd’s song. Joyful and grateful feelings after the storm”. He barely needed to add those descriptions, though, as a combination of his genius and our imaginations do the work for us.

Recommended Recording: Minnesota Orchestra

Berlioz Fantastic Symphony (1830)

Like Beethoven’s ‘Pastorale’, Berlioz’s avant-garde Fantastic Symphony is in five movements, each accompanied by a title to tell you what is going on. Among various altered visions of opium on both sides, the central movement takes us into a “scene in the fields”. As we wander dreamily through the hills, we hear a dialogue between two shepherds, as portrayed by oboe and flute. All rather atmospheric. Towards the end of the movement’s end, however, things start to get dark – is that the rumble of thunder we can hear? It is indeed.

Recommended registration: royal concert hall / Mariss Janson

Spohr Symphony No. 9, “The Seasons” (1850)

The German composer Louis Spohr (1784-1859), who deserves to be much better known, had the idea for his Symphony “The Seasons” lying in bed after slipping on the ice and suffering a concussion . With one season per movement, we are treated to various sounds of the countryside, including the chirping of birds at the start of ‘Spring’, the second movement. Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, we also hear some rumbles of thunder in ‘Summer’ before a raucous post-harvest drinking song ends ‘Autumn’.

Recommended registration: Orchestra of Italian Switzerland /Howard Shelley

Robert Schumann Waldszenen (1849)

For an excellent example of pastoral music written for solo piano, opt for Waldszenen, Robert Schumanof nine short pieces for piano – the title means “Forest Scenes”. As we stroll among the trees, the German composer serenades us with all sorts of forest sounds, from “Hunters on the prowl” to the atmospheric song of “The Prophet Bird.” If ‘Haunted Place’ can annoy us, we quickly find a more comforting place in ‘Friendly Landscape’ then ‘The Inn’ – Schumann’s pub is cozier, less noisy than Spohr’s. And as we come to the end of the end of the set, familiar faces return as we hear the ‘Hunting Song’.

Recommended registration: Marc-Andre Hamelin