Beethoven, Ludwig van, Symphony Number 6 in F

In the fall of 1974, I transferred to Indiana University at Bloomington. It felt like starting all over again. Though academically far from a failure, my freshman year seemed like some bad dream or mistake. Instead of choosing my own major, I felt compelled to study what my father wanted me to–computer science. But it had proved so mind-numbingly boring, that I switched to English. During my second semester, I switched to French, and I decided to transfer  to Bloomington because it had a good language program.

When I say “good language program,” that of course is an understatement. During World War II, the government pumped scads of money into Indiana University to make it a premier a language center for the war effort. You could study virtually any language you wanted. Among the Slavic languages: Russian, Czech, and Polish. It had a Uralic and Altaic department where you could take Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Uighur, and Votic. It was also a center for oriental studies, so you could take Chinese–Mandarin and Cantonese–Korean, and Japanese. Of course you could study ancient Greek and Latin, but it was probably best-know for modern Language Department: French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.

At that time, Indiana University had a student body of some 33,000 people. The dorm situation was rather tight that year and I was assigned to a 13 story, high rise twin tower dorm called Briscoe. Right next to us sat another called McNutt. I was not happy to be there. It was mostly full of freshman, away from home the first time, whose goal it was to party their brains out. After having had the roommate from hell the year before, I paid extra to get my own room. That only helped slightly, because people pretty much played music and got drunk there 24 hours a day.

One thing that kept me sane was the sister of a high school friend, who lived in McNutt dorm. I have to thank her for introducing me to a number of works of good music. One way she did this was to convince me to go see the movie, Fantasia with her, which was released in theaters that fall, something that before the age of home videos Disney would do about every 10 years. I had seen excerpts from The Sorcerers Apprentice on Disney’s television show, but had never seen the whole movie. So I was excited by the prospect of seeing the movie, especially because she had raved about it.

It’s hard to be completely objective about Fantasia. I grew up on Bugs Bunny and Walt Disney cartoons and loved animation. At the same time, I felt that certain parts–like The Rite of Spring and Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor– were ill-conceived. Later, I went through one of those intellectually “purist” stages where I felt that animating great works of music was a kind of bastardization, but truth be told, I did like a lot ofFantasia.

And it did introduce me to Beethoven’s Symphony Number 6 in F which is still one of my favorite works. Beethoven wasn’t the first composer to try to imitate nature. I believe that Hayden wrote a symphony with a cuckoo and Mozart’s father did one with a bird whistle in it. And Vivaldi, of course, wrote The Four Seasons to capture the moods one feels throughout the year. But, Beethoven’s sixth (also called Pastorale) just seems to work out Rousseau’s Romantic notion of man being a noble savage, inspired by and finding freedom in nature.

Beethoven wasn’t just trying to literally imitate natural sound. Instead, he gave the movements in his symphony titles that showed he was trying to capture the moods inspired by nature. The are entitled “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Country,” “Scene by the Brook,” “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” “Thunderstorm,” and “Shepherd’s Song: Happy, Thankful Feelings after the Storm.”

Disney with the complicity of Stokowski, abridged the symphony, and turned it into a depiction of excruciatingly cute satyrs, nymphs, and the gods Dionysus and Pan harvesting grapes, making wine, getting drunk, almost drowning in a storm, and then giving thanks for surviving the calamity. As a child I would have liked it, just as my daughters did when they first saw it, so I can forgive the saccharine nature of Disney’s vision. Unfortunately, it spawned a whole series of horrible little plastic ponies in the 70s and 80s, which became the rage among little girls. That is harder to forgive.

What resonated with me in this symphony is how it conveys the sense of joy and well being one derives from nature. As a boy, I loved taking walks through the woods that lay behind the elementary school across the street from my house. When my oldest brother moved to Colorado in the 60s and we spent our summer vacations visiting him I found the Rocky Mountains, in which we camped and backpacked, to be truly awe-inspiring. The symphony also made me remember visits to my uncle’s farm, half of which was given to pasture land for a herd of cows. I have a profound, almost reverential respect for nature, and perhaps that is why I love this symphony so much.

And then again, it ends on such a positive note, which buoyed my spirits and made me feel that I had made the right decision in transferring to Indiana University.

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Beethoven’s 6th from Amazon

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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