Socially Distant — Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Christian Baldini
May 19, 2020 · 3 min read
What makes a truly great musical performance?

Hundreds of recordings have been made of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Countless articles, books, dissertations and thesis have been written about it. Much has been speculated about the meaning of those famous opening four notes [short, short, short, loooooong], arguably the most recognizable motif in the entire symphonic repertoire.

“This is the sound of fate knocking at the door”, is what Beethoven is meant to have responded when he was asked about the meaning of this opening motif, according to his secretary and biographer Anton Schindler. Many scholars have doubted Schindler’s motivation for this famous quote, including the research assistant at the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Jens Dufner, who argues that “Anton Schindler was a shady figure,” and that “Over the course of the years, he made ever greater attempts to portray his closeness to Beethoven and to embellish more and more things.”

Regardless of what Beethoven might have meant or implied by those four opening notes, this symphony has become a synonym of strength, of victory, a perfect model of perseverance and triumph over difficulties and struggles, and overall, it might be perceived by many as a musical representation of what it means to be human.

But what exactly makes a great musical performance? Can one actually create the best, closest possible approximation in sound to what the composer intended? Is this related to character, rhythm, tempo, color, poetic imagery, dramatic sense, drive, technique, suspense, sound world, articulation, phrasing? There is no better way to understand this than to actually listen for yourself.

For this purpose, I have compiled performances of the opening of the symphony (just the first 21 bars) as interpreted by over forty legendary conductors (and one pianist), both historic and living ones. The video lasts exactly 15 minutes and 5 seconds, and is not necessarily arranged in order of preference. This was a very satisfactory research project, and it is my hope that many music lovers will enjoy it. What is your favorite performance? Leave a comment if you’d like!

Beethoven — Symphony №5 opening (42 conductors + 1 pianist)

Final Notes

You will see that in the above video we find names of some very famous Beethoven interpreters, such as Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Paavo Järvi, Daniel Barenboim, John Eliot Gardiner, Christian Thielemann, Claudio Abbado, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Simon Rattle, Herbert von Karajan, Michael Tilson Thomas, Karl Böhm, Erich Kleiber, Carlos Kleiber, Philippe Herreweghe, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Harding, Roger Norrington, David Zinman, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It also includes some rarities, such as the following names of (equally extraordinary) performers that one would not usually associate with Beethoven: Pierre Boulez, Gustavo Dudamel, Peter Eötvös, Teodor Currentzis, Sergiu Celibidache, Osmo Vänskä, Franz Welser-Möst, Myung-Whun Chung, George Szell, Mikhail Pletnev, Gianandrea Noseda, Edo de Waart, Seiji Ozawa, Herbert Blomstedt, Bruno Walter, Andris Nelsons, François-Xavier Roth, Iván Fischer, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and Glenn Gould (in the famous Liszt Piano Transcription). Of course some names have been left out, such as Richard Strauss (even though I love his music and also his interpretation of this symphony). The orchestras they conduct are the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Stuttgart Radio Symphony (SWR), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, NBC Symphony, Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, MusicaEterna, Münchner Philharmoniker, Ensemble Modern, Philadelphia Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Russian National Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

For more information about this and other projects of mine, visit my personal website.

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