One of the great treasures in the British Library’s extensive music collections is featured in the first instalment of the series ‘Treasures of the British Library’ (Sky Arts, Tuesday 18 October at 9pm). Beethoven’s Pastoral sketchbook (shelfmark Add. MS 31766) was purchased by the Library in 1880. It contains a wealth of musical material associated with the Pastoral symphony, one of Beethoven’s best-loved works and a staple of the orchestral repertory.
The sketchbook offers a fascinating insight into the composer’s creative mind as he worked on the symphony during the course of 1808. An early title for the symphony, given on the first page of the sketchbook, was ‘Sinfonie Caracteristica oder Errinerungen an das Landleben’ (‘Characteristic symphony or Remembrances of country life’):
While the symphony includes imitations of bird calls, babbling brooks and a thunderstorm, Beethoven stressed that it was not intended as a representation of particular pastoral scenes. Writing to his publisher Breitfopf in Leipzig, he described it instead as an expression of the feelings evoked by the countryside. In the sketchbook itself he states that ‘One leaves it to the listener to work out the situations’ (‘Man überlasst es dem zuhören sich selbst die Situationen auszufinden’):
Beethoven is well-known for the chaotic appearance of his musical handwriting, his manuscripts often being full of deletions, amendments and scribbles. The Pastoral sketchbook is no exception. At first glance, it may seem impossible to decipher the hastily scribbled notation, seemingly applied to the page with little regard for intelligibility or precision. Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear that the sketches represent a painstaking process of refinement and re-drafting, as each musical idea is developed in relation to the emerging structure for the work as a whole.
The first page of the sketchbook, discussed with Lord Winston in the first episode of the Sky Arts series, contains the building blocks for the symphony’s lyrical opening melody. Beethoven described the first movement as ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside’ (‘Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande’). Each constituent part of the theme is represented here in various permutations, including (from the eighth stave onwards) an outline of the first 40 or so bars.
The theme is developed further in the following pages, as Beethoven fleshed out the accompanying parts in short score. One forms the impression of an almost obsessive mind, as the composer repeatedly re-writes fragments of notation in different permutations.
Describing his working method many years later in a letter to his patron and pupil the Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven described how it was important to position a small table next to the piano, so that one learns to ‘pin down immediately the most remote ideas’ (1823). An idea captured on paper is in no danger of escaping and – unlike some composers – Beethoven was careful to preserve much of his sketch material, not least because they often contained a great detail of material that was not absorbed into the finished work. Indeed, the need to keep a written record of his thoughts seems to have increased with age and encroaching deafness. In the last 12 years of his life he also kept a pocket sketchbook with him at all times, allowing him to jot down musical ideas or melodies as they came to him.
Some 30 volumes of Beethoven’s sketches survive in libraries around the world. Deciphering and analysing this material has become almost a scientific discipline in itself, and started as long ago as the second half of the 19th century. The British Library has digitised the Pastoral sketchbook and it is available to view via the Digitised Manuscripts website. Now anyone can explore the intricacies of a great composer’s working method and marvel at the creativity of a musical genius in full flow.
David Wyn Jones, Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson and Robert Winter (ed.), The Beethoven Sketchbooks: History, Reconstruction, Inventory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)
Philip Gossett, ‘Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: sketches for the first movement’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 27 (1974), p. 248-84.
Alan Tyson, ‘A reconstruction of the Pastoral Symphony Sketchbook (British Museum Add. MS 31766)’, in Beethoven Studies 1 (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 67-96.