Beethoven’s cows

Inspiration comes from the darnedest places. In the world of symphonies and classical music, it may often be perceived that our time-honoured musical masterpieces are the result of divinely gifted minds treating on suitably lofty themes. Epic characters like Napoleon Bonaparte and Cleopatra have been successful source material, as have been majestic sights such as the Alps and the Danube River. But why so little mention of the stately cow?

Swans, yes certainly. There were a few composers that liked to write about swans gliding about. But it’s a little known fact that many more genius musicians were moved by bovine inspiration. To be slightly more precise, it was the phenomenon of cows lining up that got the creative juices flowing. Understandably. In English translation, a Cow-Procession sounds somewhat less august than what the Swiss called it: ranz-des-vaches (or predictably more practical in German, ein Kuhreihen). If it was your job to assemble the cows scattered over the mountainside, you would have sung the ranz-des-vaches specific to your particular spot on the mountain, and apparently the cows would have commenced processing. These melodies became compositional fodder for Rossini, Berlioz, Schumann, Strauss and the greatest of them all, Beethoven.

For many the name Beethoven conjures images of a surly looking character, all wild eyes and crazy hair. It’s consistent with the notion that the world’s greatest composer was a cantankerous curmudgeon, eternally scowling as he shook his fist at the universe. Some of Beethoven’s music fits this characterization too. There’s definitely violence intended in his earth-shattering Third Symphony, the Eroica; and the universally recognized opening of his astonishing Fifth Symphony is about as close to the musical equivalent of fist-shaking as you can get. Beethoven was music’s original iconoclast, and the effects of his originality have reverberated for nearly two centuries.

But Beethoven had another side that was gentler and more lyrical, and perhaps nowhere is it better displayed than in his perfect Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. It’s a charming masterpiece that exquisitely paints a picture of nature and of humankind’s place within it. When he wasn’t screaming at landlords, waiters and patrons, Beethoven liked to take regular walks in the countryside around Vienna, and it was here that this unique and life-affirming symphony was born.

About three-quarters of the way through the symphony, after lusty dances with the country folk and a harrowing thunderstorm, all becomes quiet and in the distance you hear the magical ranz-des-vaches, first on the clarinet, then passed to the horn and eventually treated by the entire orchestra. As you may expect, Beethoven did it better than most.

The Pastoral Symphony brims over with joy from start to finish, and it gently reminds us to examine the vital connection we have to this physical place where we live. With every hearing, this music reaffirms that Beethoven—all the many sides of Beethoven—still has something essential to tell us. For that matter, maybe the cows do too.