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Reframing Beethoven: Performing the Pastoral Symphony in the Context of the Climate Crisis

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth in 1770 coincided with the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the course of the composer’s 56 years, technological innovation swept across Europe, transforming the means of production and manufacturing in magnitudes not seen since the advent of plant and animal husbandry several thousand years earlier. The ensuing generation of new wealth allowed for the creation of capitalist societies and drove massive economic growth, spawning new employment opportunities in mills and factories for workers previously tied to living and working off the land. A middle-class lifestyle—and the disposable income and leisure time that come with it—was suddenly attainable by more and more people. Even Beethoven himself benefited from this new chance at upward mobility: Born into a family of working-class musicians in Bonn (present-day Germany), he used his prodigious musical talent, tireless work ethic, and ingenious marketing prowess to move to Vienna and earn his rightful place among Austria’s musical elite.

The Industrial Revolution also brought about the dawn of Romanticism. The artists of the 18th century Enlightenment Era used their art to stress the importance of logic, reason, and science to explain the world around them in a rational way. By the 19th century, Romantic artists had turned inwards, reacting to rapid societal modernization by emphasizing individualism (especially “heroism”), intuition, and a preference for “the way things used to be,” as expressed through intense emotions such as terror, grief, and awe. Most importantly, the Romantic movement cast off the prevailing Industrial notion of humanity achieving dominion over Nature; artists of the Romantic Era sought instead to idolize Nature in all its glory. Rather than asking, “How does the world work, and why?” they asked, “What does this all mean and what is our role in it?” Nature became their welcome refuge from an increasingly mechanized world.

The Pastoral Symphony

"How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks; no man can love the country as I love it. Woods, trees, and rocks send back the echoes that man desires."

So said Beethoven of his sojourns in the fields and forests outside Vienna, which inspired him to pen his Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral,” and share those “echoes that man desires” with his audiences. Beethoven was adamant that his Pastoral Symphony was not truly programmatic, that it was “more an expression of feeling than painting.” Yet despite his insistence that any programmatic implications would disappear had he left the symphony’s movements untitled, he still chose to give them specific descriptions that evoke strong imagery of life in the countryside. Any listener who has heard birds chirping among the trees will immediately recognize the bird calls in the second movement as such; the fourth movement’s pitter-patter of raindrops, unstable atmosphere, and peals of thunder unmistakably illustrate a storm passing through. Beethoven’s original intent may not have been programmatic, but in practice, he created what has become one of the most well-known, beloved, and frequently performed depictions of Nature in all of European classical music.

It is for this very reason that we chose to program a piece for "Take a Stand: A Concert for Climate Action" that already enjoys enduring popularity, that orchestras around the world feature in their concert halls year after year.

It is no longer sufficient to merely pay musical tribute to the beauty and harmony of the natural world—it is incumbent upon us to reframe this masterwork within the context of the current environmental crisis and use it as an engine for affecting societal change. ***

A Journey Through Beethoven's Nature With A Modern Lens

Our excerpted version of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony opens with the third movement, a “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” a lively and playful scherzo that celebrates the happiness felt when spending time in the Great Outdoors. This revelry is quickly quashed by a light drizzle (led by the strings) and rumbles of distant thunder (played by the timpani), which ultimately erupt into an orchestral tutti that portrays a fierce and cacophonous tempest. The storm soon passes, though, and the local alpine shepherds mark the occasion with joyous and characteristically Austrian yodeling (first played by solo clarinet, then by solo horn). Beethoven transforms this yodel motif into the thematic architecture for his final hymn of thanksgiving, aptly titled “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings.” (Fun Fact: We are presenting the pared-down “Leopold Stokowski arrangement” of the final movement, used by Maestro Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Disney’s perennial favorite, Fantasia. We tried to book the centaurs and fauns for this concert, but sadly they were all busy.)

While the first two movements of the Pastoral Symphony (not included on this program) describe scenes in Nature and the moods they evoke, these final three movements incorporate people into the score—viewed through a contemporary lens, they symbolize humanity’s place in our planet’s ecosystem and how we are all affected by climate events. For those of us who take the climate crisis seriously, the days of merriment have passed—we are now in the middle of a storm that threatens the entire planet and leaves us with more questions than answers. Will we as a species take the drastic actions necessary to halt and mitigate the effects of climate change? Will we make it through the storm and emerge on the other side with hearts full of mirth and gratitude? Or will we continue on our current trajectory, only to find that the tempest has eradicated our way of life as we know it? Will the natural world as Beethoven knew it exist for future generations of composers to musically depict in a similar way? Will our symphony also end on a positive note?

Photo by: TRINK Magazine

"Nature is a glorious school for the heart! It is well; I shall be a scholar of this school and bring an eager heart to her instruction. Here I shall learn wisdom, the only wisdom which is free from disgust; here I shall learn to know God and find a foretaste of heaven in His knowledge. Among these occupations, my earthly days shall flow peacefully along until I am accepted into that world where I shall no longer be a student, but a knower of wisdom."

What might Beethoven say about the state of our planet were he alive today? How would he react to the dire news that anthropogenic climate change has brought us to the brink of global destruction? His ever-present scowl makes me believe he would be deeply disappointed, but I suspect his fiery temperament might also lead him to his own personal brand of activism. After all, this is the guy who originally dedicated his Third Symphony (“The Heroic”) to Napoleon Bonaparte, but furiously tore up the title page and revoked that dedication upon learning that Napoleon had declared himself emperor—clearly Beethoven had little regard or patience for “The Man.” It’s not such a stretch, then, to imagine an ornery Beethoven chaining himself to a tree in protest of habitat destruction and overdevelopment, or taking to the streets and joining a march for climate action. (He’d probably get along with Greta Thunberg!) At the very least, he might reevaluate his assertion that his Pastoral Symphony is not programmatic—perhaps he would embrace the idea that the musical world he painted for us is a reminder that our planet is fragile and irreplaceable, and that it is our collective responsibility to ensure its survival, lest we perish along with it. Surely Beethoven loved Nature too much not to reconsider.

*** We encourage you to learn more about the Beethoven Pastoral Project, which used this symphony to “draw attention to the theme of ‘mankind and nature,’ represented in the romantic sense in the ‘Pastoral’ deal actively with today’s urgent questions of environmental protection and global sustainability, and [to achieve] the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement.” Although the window for PROTESTRA to participate in this Project has since passed, we have signed their Artists Declaration affirming our commitment to be “part of the solutions to current planetary challenges.” The website remains a valuable resource for classical music organizations striving to reduce their carbon footprint and embrace the core tenet of sustainability.

This blog post was written by Ian Vlahović, PROTESTRA Co-founder, Director of Operations & Board Chair.

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