Beethoven’s early chamber music occasionally includes ideas that are only fully developed in his subsequent masterpieces. For instance, the contrast between Sonata No.5 in C minor and Sonata No.6 in F major, the first two in the triptych of op.10 piano sonatas of 1796 to 1798, can be seen as a foretaste of another well-known pair of antipodes composed at a later date – the Fifth and Sixth (Pastoral) Symphonies, written in 1808 in the same keys, C minor and F major. Any comparison of the Fifth Sonata and Fifth Symphony remains provisional, since the former is far more modest and laconic. However, we cannot doubt the pastoral characteristics of the Sixth Sonata, although the spectrum of images and moods was never intended to compete with the lyrical epos of the Sixth Symphony.
In the second half of the 18th century the key of F major was often used to denote pastoral subject matter. These could be se-cular, ‘galant’ (refined peasant characters from an opera or ballet scene) and pastoral-religious (the pastoral theme is associated with Christianity in the concept of Christ the Good Shepherd or the story of the Nativity, where shepherds come to worship the infant Jesus). From the outset the choice of this key directed the sensibilities of both performer and listener towards gratifying simplicity, carefree playfulness and amicable interaction surrounded by nature perceived as welcoming and friendly. All this might be briefly interrupted by minor quarrels between lovers, light rain showers or a melancholy ballad sung by an itinerant bard. Such pleasant dreams were well suited to long evenings in comfortable Viennese drawing rooms, in the dim twilight or lit by bright candle flame… It could be said that musical romanticism was born here, in social circles that united the inhabitants of spiritual Arcadia – a pastoral paradise that never existed, populated by brilliant creators and their admirers, who were transported by art into a world contrived by the dream of harmony between man and nature.
Sonata No.6 is a particularly harmonious composition whose unpretentious exterior conceals a truly aristocratic subtlety of taste. We cannot call such music insignificant, although the composer carefully avoids deliberate complication. After all, it was not written for a professional pianist, but for a high-society dilettante, the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne (1769–1803), wife of Count Johann (Ivan Yurevich) Browne-Camus (1767–1827), a brigadier at the Russian military mission in Vienna. Notwithstanding, each bar of the sonata betrays the hand of a great master who is unfailingly inventive, in general and in particulars.
The Sonata Allegro is infused with playful grace, yet not devoid of genuine warmth (the melodious second theme). The miniature exposition contains an entire romance, from lighthearted flirtation to whimsical quarrels and derisive reconciliations with mutual taunts. Increasingly dark tone-colour can be perceived as the interference of nature in relations between the principal characters, or as mounting disagreements. Although it stops short of a veritable tempest, and in the reprise the sunshine reappears. In the absence of any dramatic contrasts, the Sonata Allegro delights with a play of chiaroscuro perceptible in every bar. Each and every second is richly saturated by constant change in musical texture, register, dynamic contrast, density and articulation.
The second movement anticipates romantic ballads and ‘songs without words’. Structurally, too, it is reminiscent of a lengthy song – in ternary form with minor variations in the repetition of sections. The pervasive tenebrous melancholy has a narrative function. As if a bard softly sang of legendary adventures long ago – grim ancestral knights, a delicate pale-faced beauty in the unassailable tower of a gloomy castle, love blossoming like a flower on a lofty clifftop… These image associations are not unfounded. Both Beethoven and his audiences were well aware of ‘The Works of Ossian’, a brilliant hoax by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, who devised a realm of Celtic heroes with the declamations and songs he attributed to them that matched pre-Romantic sentiments prevalent in the late 18th century.
The lively dance-like finale of the sonata (in contredanse rhythm) seems full of bucolic cheer. However, the main theme of the finale is more complicated. It is constructed as a fugato and then extensively developed with rich modulations and motivic elaboration. Even when Beethoven’s intention was to write music that was relatively straightforward and unassuming, the world he created was vivid, intense and structurally complex.