In doing a minimal amount of research on Bach's Pastorale in F, I came across two things. One is that musicologist Christopher Wolff has detected the presence of a Medieval melody in the fourth movement of said Pastorale, called "Resonet in laudibus" which was sung at Christmas to depict the rejoicing of the shepherds upon finding the baby Jesus. Why is this important? Well, because it supports my contention, of course!
The idea here, which, so far as I know, hasn't been advanced before (surely, somebody must have though of this, though; it strikes me as pretty obvious, and I have hardly exhausted the literature, so I'll let you know)--the idea here is that Bach is modelling his pastorale after the story of the Shepherds as related in the 2nd chapter of the gospel of Luke. Pastorales, as a genre, as a musical and artistic movement, are associated with shepherds and rural life in general, and feature idealized views of country life. Bach decided to go a bit further than this, and elaborate on his study of sheep safely grazing under the watchful eye of the shepherd by musically depicting what comes next in the sequence according to our gospel writer.
By the way, I'm going to temporarily sidestep the argument about musical storytelling being a guarantor of bad music, though that assumption is surely much of the reason that some very astute observers often miss obvious clues like this one; it also helps if you know the Bible fairly well, as Bach evidently did.
If you gaze upon the contents of the second chapter of Luke, starting with the 8th verse, what happens?
First there are sheep grazing contentedly on the hillside, being watched over by the shepherds. Got it. That's the first movement. Then there is an angelic announcement. This is the one spot that I don't notice anything musically obvious; does Bach skip this part?
Next, the shepherds rush off to Bethlehem, where they all crowd into the stable and adore the baby. The second movement seems to evoke this precious atmosphere.
Then, completely at odds with all of the rejoicing, which the shepherds start doing almost immediately (when was the last time they got time off work, anyhow? and did they serve spiked eggnog in Bethlehem?), the story continues with the verse about Mary, "pondering these things in her heart" which suggests that the joy, and sorrow, connected with the deep issues at hand, rather than merely the surface merriment, is the subject matter for Bach's third, plaintive movement. By the way, here I found the second item of research, which is that some commentators have found this movement connected with the angelic announcement. How? It sure doesn't sound like it. Their reasoning is evidently that the key signature has three flats in it, which is a number associated with angels. No idea why. Besides, it could also be connected with the Trinity, or the Three Bears. It seems like a paltry rock on which to construct such an edifice.
Finally, another sudden and dramatic shift. Mary only gets one verse to ponder, because in the next, the Shepherds are going everywhere, telling everyone what they have seen, spreading the news, and there is much rejoicing. And not only does Bach give us lots of musical mirth, he includes the afforementioned song, "Resonet in laudibus" to reference the event itself. Which I think makes the case rather well.
So here now is the whole story--shepherds, angels, baby, (rejoicing) pondering, and (more) rejoicing, in above twelve minutes. I present you, Bach's Pastorale in F:
Bach: Pastorale in F, Bwv 590
more pastorales to come in the seventh of our ten-part series