Every now and then I notice that a beloved piece of music has fallen out of my personal top ten. It may be because I’ve listened too often, or because some other piece has grabbed my affections. But something very different is at work with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, and it’s especially clear to me tonight, as I ponder the much-advertised arrival of Hurricane Irene in New York.
Known as the “Pastoral Symphony“ Beethoven constructed this work as if to tell a story over the course of its five movements, one of the first examples of what’s now known as “program music”. Here’s Beethoven’s synopsis.
- Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
- Scene at the brook
- Happy gathering of country folk
- Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm (from Wikipedia)
Movements three, four and five form a continuous unit. A happy gathering is disrupted by a storm which clears up, followed by a kind of song of thanksgiving.
Here’s an example of a performance of these three movements in two segments from youtube, beginning with three and four
….and concluding with number five.
I find myself unable to enter into this piece as fully as I once did. It’s as if I were a former believer in the flat Earth, confronting a celebration of some flat Earth ritual after having seen pictures of the round Earth from outer space.
Beethoven’s symphony used to move me greatly as a celebration of our world renewing itself through the cathartic conflict and tumult of the storm. I used to rejoice in the calm tranquility of the last movement as if it were a religious piece, a paean to Mother Nature: which it is come to think of it.
But there’s a big problem now, as Irene reminds me today. Where I once felt part of a natural cycle that renews itself, I now fear that humankind and Nature are no longer in harmony. Speaking of beliefs, I am a believer in the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change. I believe that phenomena such as the melting polar icecaps, the rising levels of oceans, the bizarre weather seen all over the world, and especially, the increasing power and virulence of storms such as Irene, have their origins not in the bad moods of some cranky deity, but rather in such factors as the collective human carbon footprint.
If we are doing this to ourselves, where does that leave the old idea of Nature’s power to renew itself? I am no longer sure that humankind and the surrounding natural world can be reconciled, when so many human activities—from burning forests to slaughtering apes to dragging nets along the bottom of the ocean—seem hostile to our Mother.
At this hour, late on the Saturday before Irene comes to NYC, I am reminded of Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts On Listening To Mahlers Ninth Symphony contemplating the end of our species. Perhaps I was naïve to believe that Nature takes care of us like a Mother. But now? Humankind never had a real cradle, but in the process of becoming responsible for our own emissions, we can no longer presuppose a benign caregiver or a warm fuzzy world.
It’s dark and scary out there, and I no longer feel quite so safe, particularly as I wonder how wild the storms might get in the years to come.