The first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony—which is subtitled a “pastoral” symphony, intending to bring to mind a walk in the country and a bonding with nature at its most felicitous—is certainly one of my favorite works of Beethoven. You may already know that Beethoven—especially as his hearing loss grew more acute, and he was feeling more and more isolated within himself—took to taking long walks in the Viennese countryside. A direct result of these walks was his sixth symphony, which has five movements—not three or even four—each one of which has a description given by the composer, having to do with some aspect of nature:

1st mov’t Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside

2nd mov’t Scene by the brook

3rd mov’t Merry gathering of country folk

4th mov’t Thunderstorm

5th mov’t Shepherd’s song—cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

I first heard the Sixth Symphony—and all the other Beethoven symphonies—when I purchased, as a teenager, the complete set of Beethoven Symphonies performed by the NBC Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Truthfully, I probably played each one a hundred times in my high school years. One of my favorite movements from all nine symphonies is this one. Can there be a Beethoven work so full of repose and serenity as the first movement of the Sixth Symphony?

Soylent Green…

I have another strong association with the movement, other than just repeatedly—hedonistically—enjoying the music, ever since I was a young man. Perhaps like me, you have also seen Soylent Green, the 1973 movie starring Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his last film)? It was a post-apocalyptic movie in which the earth, in the year 2022 (!), is experiencing a permanent greenhouse effect, pollution is rampant, resources all over the earth are depleted, and euthanasia has become the standard and accepted policy to deal with an overpopulated earth. There is a euthanasia scene—Edward G. Robinson has reached the age at which he is required to go to a particular station in order to be euthanized. Each person has some control over what they see and hear as they die in a drug-administered death. Edward G. Robinson’s character hears, as he dies, the first movement of the Beethoven Sixth Symphony (as well as a couple of other selections—Tchaikovsky and Grieg—“light classical” was his music request) while simultaneously watching fields of flowers and other scenes of nature. It is a very moving scene—especially on the big screen—and its effect in the movie is underscored by the contrast, in the rest of the movie, with continual darkness and shadows. The way the world used to be—back in the 20th century and earlier—is now only seen in movie projections. The scene is not something one forgets the beauty of. The use of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the movie was pure genius.

And of course—movies aside—the music stands alone as yet another great Beethovenian monument…

This performance by Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic is a fine one.

Here also is the Soylent Green clip, for anyone interested. Unfortunately, the colors in this clip are not as vivid as they were in the movie! Beethoven starts at 2:39.