Beethoven and the Outdoors

“Beethoven’s Walk in Nature”, Julius Schmid

 One thing that I have in common with Ludwig van Beethoven is that we both find creative rejuvenation in regular walks in the woods near our homes. I don’t know of any canine companionship that Beethoven might have enjoyed, but I have a dog with me at almost all times when I am walking through the forests of Chestnut Ridge Park, or Knox Farm, of Hunters Creek, or Sprague Brook, or Letchworth. Beethoven would escape almost daily to the woods around Vienna.

Even in Beethoven’s time, pollution was a problem in the city, and Beethoven likely felt it necessary to his physical health to get out of the city on a regular basis. I wonder how he applied those walks along forest trails to his musical life! Did he hum to himself, trying out musical ideas as he strolled? Did he take manuscript paper, quill, and ink with him so he could jot down ideas as they came? Or did he simply take a more meditative approach, using the walks to calm his often troubled soul so that when he returned to his chambers and his piano and his ink and paper, his mind was in a place to actually create?

It doesn’t precisely matter how Beethoven’s love of nature moved him to create; all that matters is that it did. His music abounds with examples of this inspiration, but the most famous and obvious is in his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral”, in which Beethoven uses five movements (not four!) to more suggest the emotions of walking in nature than musically depict it. This makes the Pastoral Symphony one of the earliest examples of “program music”, even if Beethoven’s desires were more impressionistic in nature. Nevertheless, in those five movements, Beethoven deftly creates a series of emotional moments–“melodic moments of feeling,” as Wagner would later say–that do suggest a natural setting.

The movements suggest the feelings of refreshment and delight upon arriving in the countryside, and then a scene by the side of a rushing brook. The third movement is a folk dance, followed by a storm and then by the feelings of rain-washed newness that follow a good summer storm. The entire symphony is lyrical and beautiful and at times even charming–note the folk dance in the third movement, which has a lively tune played off the beat by the oboe and a bassoon accompaniment that sounds like the bassoonist can only play three notes–and there’s real drama when the storm arrives, before peace settles again. The storm has been frightening, but also rejuvenating.

Here is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the Pastoral. Few works with more lyrical delight exist.

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One Response to Beethoven and the Outdoors

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I swear Movement III was in some Warner Brothers cartoon.

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