In my post on the U of Maryland symphonic performance I went to, I talked about the Pastoral Symphony, and how one problem I’d long had with the final movement came from its narrative. There’s been storm. Countryfolk were frightened. Now they’re thankful — for 10 minutes of music — because the storm has passed.
And the structure of the symphony might support that idea. Beethoven wrote the Fifth and the Pastoral at about the same time. And, while of course the Pastoral seems more calm, it has the same revolutionary flow as the Fifth — the final movements (two of them, in the Fifth, three in the Pastoral) are joined together, without any break. And what seems to be happening, in both those spans, is trouble, followed by joy.
But in fact something quite simple is in fact going on. In Beethoven’s time, people — many, if not most — really were afraid of storms. As shown by this passage from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. That book was written in 1774, and revised in 1787. And while the Pastoral was premiered later, in 1808, Werther was in many ways ahead of its time, prefiguring the Romantic movement in the arts, which developed in its wake. It was one of the most influential books ever written. Hard to believe the storm passage would — between 1787 and 1808 — gone out of date.
The scene is a party. All are enjoying themselves, and then:
The dance was not yet finished when the lightning which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had asserted to proceed entirely from heat, grew more violent; and the thunder was heard above the music. When any distress or terror surprises us in the midst of our amusements, it naturally makes a deeper impression than at other times, either because the contrast makes us more keenly susceptible, or rather perhaps because our senses are then more open to impressions, and the shock is consequently stronger.
To this cause I must ascribe the fright and shrieks of the ladies. One sagaciously sat down in a corner with her back to the window, and held her fingers to her ears; a second knelt down before her, and hid her face in her lap; a third threw herself between them, and embraced her sister with a thousand tears; some insisted on going home; others, unconscious of their actions, wanted sufficient presence of mind to repress the impertinence of their young partners, who sought to direct to themselves those sighs which the lips of our agitated beauties intended for heaven. Some of the gentlemen had gone down-stairs to smoke a quiet cigar, and the rest of the company gladly embraced a happy suggestion of the hostess to retire into another room which was provided with shutters and curtains.
We had hardly got there, when Charlotte placed the chairs in a circle; and, when the company had sat down in compliance with her request, she forthwith proposed a round game. I noticed some of the company prepare their mouths and draw themselves up at the prospect of some agreeable forfeit. “Let us play at counting,” said Charlotte. “Now, pay attention: I shall go round the circle from right to left; and each person is to count, one after the other, the number that comes to him, and must count fast; whoever stops or mistakes is to have a box on the ear, and so on, till we have counted a thousand.” It was delightful to see the fun. She went round the circle with upraised arm. “One,” said the first; “two,” the second; “three,” the third; and so on, till Charlotte went faster and faster. One made a mistake, instantly a box on the ear; and, amid the laughter that ensued, came another box; and so on, faster and faster. I myself came in for two. I fancied they were harder than the rest, and felt quite delighted. A general laughter and confusion put an end to the game long before we had counted as far as a thousand. The party broke up into little separate knots: the storm had ceased, and I followed Charlotte into the ballroom. On the way she said, “The game banished their fears of the storm.” I could make no reply. “I myself,” she continued, “was as much frightened as any of them; but by affecting courage, to keep up the spirits of the others, I forgot my apprehensions.” We went to the window. It was still thundering at a distance: a soft rain was pouring down over the country, and filled the air around us with delicious odours. Charlotte leaned forward on her arm; her eyes wandered over the scene; she raised them to the sky, and then turned them upon me; they were moistened with tears; she placed her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!” at once I remembered the magnificent ode which was in her thoughts: I felt oppressed with the weight of my sensations, and sank under them. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of delicious tears, and again looked up to her eyes. Divine Klopstock! why didst thou not see thy apotheosis in those eyes? And thy name so often profaned, would that I never heard it repeated!
[Klopstock was a pre-Romantic German poet, very influential in Goethe's time. ]
We like to say that classical music is timeless. Here’s one way in which one of our masterworks is firmly rooted in its time. Not that it can’t live on (as of course it has). But we’ve lost touch with the power the storm would really have had.