Frightened by storms

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.

How can a storm be so frightening? We might say (as the program notes for the Maryland concert did) that the movement really deals with something larger, rejoicing after any great trouble 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 Hard to believe the storm passage would — between 1787 and 1808 — gone out of date.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.


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  1. says

    Maybe we’ve forgotten how destructive or scary thunderstorms could be, but hurricanes? Tornadoes? 13 people died from tornadoes in southern Indiana just last week, and I deal often with messages that family members are hiding in their basements during tornado watches. I think you’re overstating the case here.

    • says

      Of course you think I’m overstating my case. With all respect, you always do!

      So, a little logic, a little critical thinking. Of course we’re frightened of storms — Katrina, that do serious damage. Not to mention tornadoes. But was that what Beethoven depicted in the Pastoral? Not at all. It was just a plain old thunderstorm. I don’t see, in the last movement, either musically or in Beethoven’s short description of what the music is about, anything about the countryfolk sustaining any damage. Their huts knocked over, their crops destroyed, their animals dead. Nor do you find any such thing in the passage from Werther. The home where the party takes place isn’t destroyed, or even slightly damaged. No one is hurt. It was just a thunderstorm. Which they were afraid of, back then (or many of them were), and we’re not.

      Case in point: Hurricane Irene, this past fall, which in fact did a lot of damage in my neck of the woods, the mid-Hudson Region of New York state. The railroad I take into the city was destroyed. Our home suffered water damage. One room is still not usable, and the ceiling in our living room still needs help. (We have a contractor engaged for all this, by the way.) Plus some exterior damage.

      But when the storm came, with very high winds and torrential rain, we weren’t frightened. It didn’t seem as bad as predicted. We sat inside very peacefully, and only afterwards saw that the amount of water that fell was tremendous, enough to do all kinds of damage. We drove around the next day, to the extent that was possible — some roads were either flooded, or had caved in — and were astonished at the impact the storm had on our town.

      But we weren’t frightened, not at all, and not even worried while the storm raged. Our expectation is that storms won’t be destructive. And if it had been a normal thunderstorm, forget it. We wouldn’t have batted an eye.

      Mark, something for you to consider. Are you so passionate about classical music that you’ll defend it even irrationally? Because what you say here just doesn’t make sense.

  2. says

    I’ll admit I usually think you overstate your case, but you also often don’t understand what I’m saying, or claim that it’s irrational. I thought you were saying that weather doesn’t frighten us anymore, when I suppose it was narrower than that and limited to thunderstorms. That’s fine, and true (the world has changed since Beethoven’s day in so many ways), but it’s reasonable to point out that A) natural disasters are still disastrous, and getting more destructive and B) music can be a response to that. Only the most literal-minded person would claim that the Pastoral symphony, an abstract piece of instrumental music, can only apply to the titles of its movements. Whether it is as disturbing as the memory of a hurricane is for someone who’s lived through one to decide, and I’d guess that it isn’t. But I still wouldn’t rule it out as a powerful, forceful statement that can move people. Everything from the past is going to mean something different to us today, and we largely get to determine and quote-unquote “make” that meaning for ourselves.

    Did you hear Marc Maron’s podcast from last November about going to the New York Philharmonic when they played the Pastoral? He was quite taken with it, if not scared like a 19th-century farmer would have been.

    Classical music doesn’t need me to defend it, Greg, but I’m glad to argue in its favor if I think it’s being misrepresented or dismissed unfairly. I’m likewise glad you made it through Hurricane Irene unscathed.

    • says

      Of course a work of art can work on many levels. And since I myself was moved by a performance of the Pastoral — which is how I got into these questions in the first place — I’m hardly saying that the piece can’t touch us anymore.

      In fact, I thought that I was quite specific in what I said. That the storm could work on many levels, but that in Beethoven’s time, it had a meaning that wouldn’t hit us hard today — many people, very simply, were afraid of storms, even routine ones. So the most basic narrative that Beethoven proposes had a force, in his time — without any need for storms-as-metaphors, or storms conceived as unusually destructive — that it can’t have now.

      And I can’t imagine what could be surprising about that! Times do change.