Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony "The Pastoral"

Little compares to Ludwig van Beethoven. One of the strangest opinions I've ever heard of Beethoven is that his music is malevolent. He certainly can convey darker themes with his compositions. The Fifth Symphony, with its "Fate knocking at the door" is far from lighthearted. Indeed, Beethoven can be seen as the first Heavy Metal artist, with the booming epic style of his symphonies. Considered a member of the Classical school along with Mozart and Haydn we can hear echoes of Shubert and a foretaste of the Romantics that is absent mostly, say, in Mozart. To make a grossly inadequate analogy for the student of pop music, Beethoven's dramatic range is like Led Zepellin to Mozart's saccharine early Beatles.

Beethoven's place in Western culture is unparalleled. Consider Stanley Kubrick's dystopian masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange. The anti-hero Alexander De Large could hardly have been portrayed as a Tschaikovsky fanatic. When the Berlin Wall fell, they did not hold a Mahler or a Wagner concert to celebrate. One of the greatest of all human accomplishments is Beethoven's nine symphonies. Especially the last seven, from the "Eroica" (3rd) from which he ripped the dedication to Napoleon when Bonaparte betrayed the Republic and crowned himself Emperor, to the Ninth, the wildly popular "Choral Symphony" based on Schiller's romantic poem, the Ode to Joy.

One of my favorite of all classical pieces is Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, "The Pastoral." Composed, rehearsed and debuted along with the more ominous Fifth, The Sixth, with its buoyant mood, provides a perfect complement. The Pastoral Symphony, which is intentionally meant to evoke "recollections of country life" has been famously adapted to two iconic movies of the Twentieth Century. The first is Walt Disney's animated masterpiece Fantasia. The full five movements, performed by Leopold Stokowski directing the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, are illustrated with scenes of Greek and European mythology that comprise one of my earliest and most joyful childhood memories.

The second iconic film usage is in 1973's sci-fi noir, Soylent Green. The fatherly police archivist Sol Roth, (Edward G. Robinson in his last role,) has watched America decay from greatness to mindless rioting and self-delusion. Choosing to die, he patronizes a state-run euthansia clinic. With all the world's wildlife dead, Roth watches images of the countryside and listens to Beethoven's Pastoral as the fatal cocktail takes effect. Of course its use in Soylent Green is darkly ironic. The piece itself conjures no malevolent images, at least nothing worse than a soon-passed summer thunderstorm.

Click here to see part one of the Pastoral in Disney's Fantasia. Click here for Sol's departure in Soylent Green. And here is Herbert von Karajan, renowned for his beethoven Interpretations, directing the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the complete symphony:

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