Beethoven loved nature in the Romantic sense of the term.
It was there that he found relaxation, solitude and inspiration. In the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony he composed music which, in its organic and cyclical structure, can be considered a sonic portrayal of nature. The Jubilee will probe the relation between mankind and nature, including such current issues as environmental destruction and sustainability.
Beethoven loved nature. To him it was a place of recuperation and inspiration alike. Even as an adolescent he took excursions into the Bonn surroundings, and a longing for rural life accompanied him to the end of his days. In summer he regularly travelled from Vienna into the countryside – to Mödling, Heiligenstadt and Baden – for the peace he needed in order to compose. In October 1810 he even entertained the thought of buying a cottage in the country. Given his love of nature, it weight all the more heavily on him that his dwindling powers of hearing restricted his perception of nature. As he confided to his brothers in the moving Heiligenstadt Testament, ‘Imagine my humiliation when someone standing beside me heard a flute in the distance and I heard - nothing! or someone heard a shepherd singing and I heard – nothing’.
Beethoven was a ‘musical tinkerer’ who often took up isolated motifs, short snippets of melody and spur-of-the-moment ideas and revised, elaborated and reworked them later. On his long walks through nature he generally carried a small sketchbook in order to jot down such musical building-blocks. In short, he was not just a nature lover; walking and being out of doors was often essential to his music.
Beethoven’s love of nature left a mark on many of his works. The first one we normally think of is the Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’, where he drew on a tradition of nature depictions in music. All five of its movements bear programmatic titles: ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside’, ‘Scene by the brook’, ‘Merry gathering of country folk’, ‘Thunder, Storm’ and ‘Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’. In ‘Scene by the brook’ he imitated birdsong in his music and identified it in the score with the terms ‘nightingale’, ‘quail’ and ‘cuckoo’. The thunderstorm movement depicts natural forces being unleashed upon humanity.
This colourful, richly illustrative music has given rise to a lasting image of Beethoven the Romantic seated beside a brook beneath a shady tree and writing the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Tellingly, there also exist influential portraits of Beethoven with leafy foliage or landscapes in the background. But quite apart from such Romantic excrescences, the ‘Pastoral’ remains a consummate work of art on the mutual relations of man and nature.
Two of Beethoven’s songs likewise evoke the nightingale: the piano accompaniment of Adelaide, and a setting of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Der Gesang der Nachtigall (The song of the nightingale), where birdsong forms the basis of the piano introduction. Other songs are deeply influenced by nature: Der Wachtelschlag (The cry of the quail) inspired Beethoven’s contemporary Friedrich Kuhlau to compose a set of variations for piano duet. The song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) conjures up the image of a singer seated in a solitary landscape and singing to his beloved, summoning birds, brooks and clouds as his intermediaries. The words of the opera librettist Pietro Metastasio 'Oh care selve' (WoO 119) invoke nature as a place of freedom. In Seufzer eines Ungeliebten (Sigh of an unloved man), by Gottfried August Bürger, the protagonist sees love everywhere in nature; only he feels unloved. Still more frequent are the portrayals of nature in Beethoven’s folk-song arrangements; and nature is an omnipresent symbol in his setting of Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm sea and prosperous journey).
That nature can also have a dangerous side in Beethoven’s music is amply demonstrated by the thunderstorm scene of the ‘Pastoral’. Indeed, the optimism of the Enlightenment was seriously dampened by the devastating earthquakes of Lisbon (1755) and Messina (1783). Beethoven himself faced several natural disasters in the course of his life: the terrible ice floods in Central Europe during the winter of 1784 forced his family to flee from Bonn’s Rheingasse under perilous conditions; and the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1816 went down in history as the ‘Year without a Summer’, leading to worldwide cold spells and famines. Environmental conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries – especially drinking water – were poor and caused people to regularly prefer (clean) wine or beer to polluted drinking water, with long-term damage to their health. The air, too, was polluted; in one letter Beethoven complained of ‘the poor quality of air in the city’. The stench drove those who could afford it to leave Vienna in the summer months. And the Industrial Revolution began during Beethoven’s lifetime, initially in England, and with it the destruction of nature, the effects of which we continue to feel today.Beethoven’s life and his musical approach to man and nature have prompted us, in our Jubilee programme, to take up and discuss environmental protection and sustainability from the vantage point of art and culture.
Christine Siegert & Christian Lorenz