Interpretation is In The Ear of the Conductor

One of the things that is great about going to classical music concerts is that even when you have heard the same piece of music many times, you almost always hear something new each time you hear it.  You may hear the staccato in a phrase of a certain section of the orchestra that you hadn’t noticed before or you may hear the importance of a certain instrument in a phrase of the piece that for some reason you are just hearing for the first time.

Also, when you hear a piece you have heard many times by a certain conductor performed by a new conductor, the piece may sound different.   How is that you may ask?  It is the same piece with the same notes by the same composer and played by the same symphony orchestra and all that is different is the conductor, so why wouldn’t the music be played the same way and sound exactly the same?

That is because each conductor, who conducts a piece by a famous composer, is interpreting the piece the way that they feel that the composer wants the music to be played.  All the great conductors study the composers and their music to try and get a feel of how that great composer wants their music to be interpreted.  There is no wrong or right way to interpret the piece of music as it is all in the “ear” of the conductor.  When you hear a piece played a little different than you have heard before, it is not because the conductor is doing it for changes sake or just to make himself unique, rather it is his understanding of how the composer wanted that music to be played.

How can a piece sound different when the orchestra is playing the exact same notes every time?  There may be a phrase that the conductor thinks should be shaped a certain way, or the dynamics might be interpreted different.  For example, a certain part of the music might be marked “f ” for forte or loud…but how loud is loud…that is up to each conductor to determine.  Also, the tempo or speed of the piece can be interpreted differently by different composers.  Yes, the composer might mark a movement of a piece he has composed as “Allegro” which means to be played fast.  But how fast?  Different composers determine in their mind [from their understanding] of how fast the composer means the piece to be played.

There is one piece of music that I have heard many times, on recordings and at the concert hall, and I have almost never heard it played the exact same way.  This piece maybe the most recognized and it certainly one of the most beloved pieces of classical music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony [the opening movement].  The opening 8 note motif is probably the most well known opening of a classical music piece by even non classical music aficionados.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is Interpreted many different ways by the great Maestros leading their orchestras.

The opening movement of this greatness may be the starkest example of how different conductors can interpret the same piece of music a different way.  And none of them are wrong.  

Here is an example of four legendary conductors, Herbert Van Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, and Seiji Ozawa, and their different interpretations of the opening of the first movement, Allegro con brio, of the Beethoven 5th Symphony:

Now here is the full symphony #5 by the great Ludwig Van Beethoven.  This masterpiece may be played as much as any other piece in concert halls around the world.  It was scored in C minor and has four movements:  1. Allegro con brio,  2. Andante con moto,  3. Scherzo – Allegro,  4. Allegro.  This stirring piece ends with one of the most exciting sustained climaxes in the symphonic genre.  

In this video, I love this interpretation of the Beethoven 5th by the great Maestro Gustavo Dudamel.  This is a great performance of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.  Thanks for this video on You Tube from EmbavenezCanada

Please turn up the volume, play in full screen, and enjoy this genius masterpiece by Ludwig Van Beethoven.

2 thoughts on “Interpretation is In The Ear of the Conductor

  1. I really enjoyed your take on this issue. I think it is a real question as to how much a conduct should superimpose their own taste/style on a composition. Honestly, I don’t think there is a right answer. As Berg said, “music is music.” That said, I’ve been drawn to the original instrument movement, which not only tamps down on the excessive dynamics of modern instruments, reintroduces instruments with slightly different timbres (a true wood flute, for example), but also right sizes the orchestra. With Beethoven in particular, you also get a much faster tempo, indicative of how the work would originally have been performed. Thus heard, Beethoven recedes back to the Classical composer that he was, albeit with Romantic overtones that began with Mozart circa 1786 with Don Giovanni. Gardiner’s recordings are very instructive in this regard.

    Liked by 1 person

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