When I am working on a score of Beethoven, I often think of what Steve Martin would say about him. I think Steve would constantly be exclaiming, "he was a wild and crazy guy!!"
We are performing "Beethoven's 6th Symphony" on Friday night and at this time in his life he certainly was a wild guy. They say he walked, head down, every day in the woods and the pastures. He would be completely absorbed in creating and singing his new ideas to himself, jotting down notes in his little notebook. Since he was almost completely deaf by this point in his life, he was always bumping into people, dogs, sheep and cattle. He was in big trouble with many farmers on several occasions as, after he had been startled by the animals, he would lose his ferocious temper, start screaming at the cows and chase them all over the fields.
However, Beethoven was one of the greatest lovers of nature. He was quoted often as saying "I love a tree more than any man." He delighted in nature and spoke often of how important it was for him to be alone with it.
His "Pastoral Symphony" is the first symphony in history to be written with titles to celebrate nature.
In the ominous storm movement, he creates vivid paintings of deluges of rain, bolts of lightning, violent claps of thunder. There is a movement where we have a gently babbling brook; complete with all the birds that would be singing in the trees nearby — the quail, cuckoo and nightingale. Beethoven has a wonderful wit too, and in the scherzo movement, we can see the folk people celebrating outside with their rustic spring costumes, their yodeling, their dancing, and yes, perhaps a big stein of beer or two!
He does all this in the most ingenious and revolutionary ways. He copies the repetition of nature — the rustling of leaves, the swaying of trees — with sometimes 16 bars repeated over and over ... just sitting there wafting in our ears. The other composers at the time thought him completely bonkers.
In the second movement, Beethoven has just two cellos playing with second violins and violas playing with their mutes on — creating a gently flowing stream of water. When anyone in the world hears this, even without knowing the title of the movement, they know it is a slow, meandering brook. Beethoven was a painter in music.
They say fortune favors the brave. This was our man Beethoven. When no man had ever written a symphony with five (count em') movements, when no man had ever written a symphony with titles nor a story attached to it, and when no man had ever written a symphony where the last three movement are played "attacca" (without any stop whatsoever) — Beethoven takes on all three without looking back.
And once this revolutionary canvas of a symphony is written, history never looks back. The young composers of the coming romantic era seize Beethoven's torch and venture forth with what we now know as "program music" (music with a story).
We hope that you will join us on Friday evening for this wondrous piece of music and our humankind.
Opinions are solely those of the writer's. Kirk Muspratt is the conductor of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra. Muspratt's column is an occasional feature during symphony season.