top of page

EXPLORING MUSIC: ''What a Sound!''/BEETHOVEN'S ''Pastoral'' Symphony

The MHS Review 400 VOL. 12, NO. 4 • 1988

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Without a stipulated program, listeners are given to conjuring up pictures of their own. Thanks to Walt Disney's Fantasia, two or three generations have been con­vinced that Beethoven's Sixth Symphony was "about" what they suppose to be classical mythology. Looking back over a couple of books on that film, it strikes me that the emphasis was more Freudian than fabulous. All those equine and infant rumps thrust at the camera! And were the female centaurs ("centaurettes" in Disneyan!) real­ly topless on the 1940 screen, as they were in the sketches?

Never mind: John Culhane (Fantasia, New York, 1983) points out that they were watered down from the much more realistic original concepts to Hollywood high-school Lolitas. According to Culhane, all these Silenuses and Pegasuses and Jupiter Tonans were originally inspired by Gabriel Pierne's ballet music for Cydalise and the Goatfoot, which had caught Walt's fancy. In the end Walt didn't like the Beethoven and suggested that they call in "Stravinsky or this man Pierne" to write a score to go with the pictures. (Pierne was three years dead at the time!) And did you know that Walt Kelly designed the fauns--­though not, I think, in an afternoon.

Beethoven's program was, of course, Nature, which would have challenged a doughtier crew of cartoonists than Disney's. (In today's urbanized world, where last week is regarded as ancient history, neither nature nor mythology will probably strike a response with most peo­ple.) In his "conversation books" Beethoven expressed strong reservations about music's power to communicate visual images, saying that what he had in mind in the symphony was a communica­tion of the emotions felt in the presence of things natural. What he was talking about was his love of landscape and the outdoors, which marks him, if nothing else does, as a romantic.

"Nature" in the previous era had usual­ly meant human nature. In Western art, only the little Dutchmen of the 17th cen­tury had taken a serious interest in land­scape as such. (They probably gave us the word.) But with the new era, the natural world became an aesthetic focus and well-­nigh a sort of religion to painters, poets, and philosophers. Wordsworth summed up the old and new ways of looking at nature in a famous line: "A primrose by a river's brim / A yellow primrose was to him, / And it was nothing more" and pro­claimed the romantic's creed: "One im­pulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, I Than all the sages can."

Well, it seems to me that Beethoven's birdcalls and thunderbolts are pretty specific, but, speaking as one reared in rural isolation in a household that didn't know the 19th century had ended, I think I get what the composer is trying to tell me. Certainly this symphony has a different and more sensuous appeal to me than any of the others. Whether Liszt was thus affected is something I can't say for sure. He seems to have preferred the supernatural and an­tique aspects of romanticism to the natural. But the "Pastoral" was one of the first of the symphonies that he transcribed (1838). Furthermore he played it--or parts of it--­frequently in concert, and, according to the liner notes, sent the Vienna public into ecstasies with it.

Personally I find the work, as played in this recording, remarkably "pianistic." Mr. Katsaris, however, admits that he thought Liszt had missed the boat in a few places (he lists them specifically) and so added some additional "voices." One such place is the thunderstorm in the fourth move­ment. What a sound! I don't suppose that he actually leaps onto the keyboard, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he did. He must have used a very strong piano!

bottom of page