Week34: beethoven’s symphony #6 and dylan thomas’ Fern Hill


It must be heard in order to appreciate the degree of truth and sublimity which descriptive music can attain in the hands of a man like Beethoven. Listen to those gusts of wind, laden with rain; those sepulchral groanings of the basses; those shrill whistles of the piccolo, which announce that a fearful tempest is about to burst. The hurricane approaches, swells; an immense chromatic streak, starting from the highest notes of the orchestra, goes burrowing down into its lowest depths and seizes the basses, carries them along and ascends again, writhing like a whirlwind which levels everything in its passage . . . It is no longer merely merely a wind and rain storm; it is a frightful cataclysm, the universal deluge, the end of the world. “” hector berlioz on the fourth movement

it’s seems not quite april enough for the pastorality of beethoven’s sixth symphony, and so this week’s selection has been more a prelude to spring instead of the introduction it has been for the last couple of years. it is the shining example in this catalogue of an indelible combination of program music and absolute music: spring is the program, and the music is absolutely brilliant.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green

 The night above the dingle starry,

         Time let me hail and climb

    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

         Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

“” Fern Hill, dylan thomas

and right away we are sure that this is not merely the season after winter, that relief is not quite the spirit of the composition; it is a spring long awaited, greeted enthusiastically and taken hand-in-hand down the rivers of the windfall light. the same golden boy in the green jersey that dylan thomas Fern Hill summons to the mind’s eye is the same that was, at an earlier time, carelessly gallivanting about and about the fire-green slopes and babbling hills of this Pastoral Symphony.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

    In the sun that is young once only,

         Time let me play and be

    Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

         And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

“” Fern Hill, dylan thomas

so identical are the pastoral sceneries of that poem and this symphony that thomas could almost be accused of a kind of lofty plagiarism, of reverse-engineering the raw materials that beethoven expressed as musical ideas into the charade of words, the theatre of his poetry and the singing lilt of his welsh-accented-english.


All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

    And playing, lovely and watery

         And fire green as grass.

    And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

    Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

“” Fern Hill, dylan thomas

beethoven named the five symphonies as follows: 1) The Awakening of Joyful Feelings on Arrival in the Country 2) Scene by the Brook 3) Jolly Gathering of Country Folk 4) Tempest/Storm 5) Shepherd’s Song, Glad and Thankful Feelings after the Storm---how almost exactly thomas’ poem follows the trajectory of that programme:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

    Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

         The sky gathered again

    And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

    Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

“” Fern Hill, dylan thomas

the last stanza of Fern Hill too is cast in the same warm glow of thankful feelings after the storm, it’s the glow of a saturnalia, of ‘merrymaking after a long privation’ that characterizes the Allegretto of the Pastoral.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

    In the moon that is always rising,

         Nor that riding to sleep

    I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

         Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

the last two lines of the last stanza could have been lifted from beethoven’s lamentatious Heiligenstadt Testament wherein he confesses his longingness and the wretchedness of his health that make them unattainable and chooses to resign himself instead to his art.


Funk and Wagnalls Recording   // Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) // Symphony No.6 “Pastoral”

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves.

Symphony No.6

  • Allegro ma non tanto troppo

  • Andante molto mosso

  • Allegro

  • Allegro

  • Allegretto