On Aug. 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene crashed through Vermont, triggering epic flooding throughout the state that caused several hundred million dollars of damage, wrecked more than 500 miles of state highway, 2,000 local roads, and hundreds of 500 bridges. It damaged 1,500 Vermont residences and caused crop losses in excess of $10 million on more than 450 farms. Four deaths in Vermont are attributed to the storm.
Irene also brought out the better angels in all Vermonters, who responded to the needs of their friends and neighbors with record donations of money, food, household goods and sweat equity, and equal-sized gifts of compassion.
We’re still dealing with Irene. There’s damage yet to be fixed and lives to be made whole. Healing still needs to happen.
It is here Ludwig van Beethoven enters our story. The musical centerpiece of June 30’s The Event in a Tent is the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, known as the Pastoral Symphony, and it is presented in recognition of what Vermont has been through.
If you were wondering what a symphony first performed in 1808 in Vienna could possibly have to tell us in Vermont in 2012, you’re not alone. I had the same the questions. So I asked The Event in a Tent co-founder Hugh Keelan, who took me on a guided tour of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Come along.
Unusual for its time, Keelan explained, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is in five movements, not four, and the basic arc of the piece goes from peace to turmoil and back to peace.
The first movement depicts “the awakening of happy feelings in contemplation of a pastoral scene,” according to Keelan. As you listen to it, imagine the enjoyment you take from one of Vermont’s breathtakingly beautiful views. “It’s about the feelings that are awakened in the human spirit in contact with nature.”
The second movement carries these feelings to a particular setting – a brook, whose quick-running, bubbling currents are present throughout the whole movement. At various intervals, Beethoven gives us bird songs to listen to – the cuckoo voiced by a clarinet; a quail by an oboe and a nightingale by a flute.
People enter the scene in the third movement, which depicts villagers making merry … eating, drinking, dancing. “There’s a focus on humanity, on what’s great about being human. It’s bouncy, boisterous, with a hint of bawdiness that suggests pint of ale being drunk,” said Keelan.
This merriment comes to a stop when storm clouds are sighted and a distant rumble of thunder is heard, signaling the start of the fourth movement. In short order, the storm explodes in fury, with thunder and lightning and all the drama we associate with Beethoven’s music.
Then it subsides. People look cautiously out of their homes, and we hear a shepherd’s horn call, perhaps signaling that the storm has passed. This ushers in the fifth movement, which, Keelan said, is “a song of thanksgiving for the passing of the storm.”
Seen in this way, the linking of the Pastoral Symphony to Vermont’s Irene experience becomes clear.
“It’s an opportunity to examine our responses to a large-scale disaster like that and what it means to come out on the other side,” said Keelan. “This gives a bigger picture than any one person’s reaction. It goes away from specific consequences. This offers an image that’s bigger.”
“It’s kind of great that it’s not a Vermont piece, and it’s about a specific time and place,” Keelan continued. If (Beethoven’s) Ode to Joy is about all imaginable forms of joy, the Pastoral Symphony is about all imaginable forms of rebirth and reinvention after a disaster.”