Bringing Beethoven's Music to the Woods of Putney

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Reporter Margaret Grayson wrote this story about Yellow Barn's Beethoven Walks, published on July 2 in Seven Days.

Beethoven Walks installation - ZACHARY STEPHENS

Beethoven Walks Installation (Photo: Zachary Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)

Composer Ludwig van Beethoven was known for long, solitary walks through the woods surrounding his home city of Vienna, Austria. In a year when musicians and fans planned to celebrate his 250th birthday, the pandemic means they have to do it in a similar socially distant style.

Seth Knopp, the artistic director of Yellow Barn, a chamber music center in Putney, has led the design of Beethoven Walks, an outdoor installation and musical experience along walking trails. People can download an app loaded with Beethoven’s music and walk the trails, which are punctuated with benches and reproductions of Beethoven’s handwritten sketches and manuscripts.

“It occurred to me that there might be a way to bring people to music, rather than the other way around,” Knopp said. “The natural world, and walking on trails, was a big part of Beethoven’s process.”

Knopp spent many hours walking the selected trails, deciding which Beethoven pieces would pair well with the walks and how to time them. Beethoven’s well-known Symphony No. 5, Knopp said, might be better suited for a walk in Yosemite National Park. He chose a variety of music — some more gentle and contemplative, others “bright and effervescent.”

“We didn’t want one to drown out the other,” Knopp said. “Specifically, I didn’t want the music to drown out the sounds of nature.”

He recommends that walkers don’t use headphones. Instead, they can download the app and play the music out loud through their phone speaker.

Catherine Stephan, Yellow Barn’s executive director, helped coordinate with museums and centers in Europe to reproduce some of Beethoven’s original music sketches — some of which he probably wrote while walking the woods in Vienna — and manuscripts, which are the finalized version of a piece of music. The sketches are printed on banners, designed to look like they’re a part of the landscape. 

The walks are located on the Greenwood Trail on Putney’s Greenwood School campus and the Hannum Trail on Putney Mountain. The Hannum Trail installation will likely be taken down on July 18, but the Greenwood Trail will remain as a permanent gift to the school.

“It’s meant to be a very simple experience that’s meant to take people out of our current situation and connect them to music,” Knopp said. “I think that people should walk the trails not thinking that they’re taking a hike, but almost as if they’re in an outdoor installation.”

Yellow Barn is known for drawing musicians from around the world to take part in its summer festival. The center brought a smaller number of artists to Putney this year; after quarantining for 14 days they could rehearse with each other at a distance. The musicians will perform for a livestream season from July 10 through August 8.

Yellow Barn has also taken its traveling stage to local hospitals and retirement centers to play music for people who are isolated due to the pandemic.

“We go around and we play everything from the Beatles to Beethoven and everything in between. And you see people come to life,” Stephan said.

Yellow Barn was one of six Vermont arts and culture organizations to receive a direct $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding.