One time I was having a classical music listening session with a friend of mine, and when he asked what we should listen to next, I suggested some of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He acquiesced, but not before mentioning that my choice was a very “mainstream” one.
Whether I’m a classical poser or not, there are several moments in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that are — for simplicity’s sake — exemplary. Take, for example, the sudden thematic shift in the second movement, from an inevitable, definitive minor to an unhindered, lively major. Beethoven hinted at the possibility of such tonal fulfillment earlier in the movement, but it is not until this stark contrast that the extent of his creative vision is recognized. A similar moment occurs in the final measures of the fourth movement. Once the grand Ode to Joy has been stated in its entirety, Beethoven stalls for several seconds on a cadential A major, building up extreme tension before finally drawing the piece to a close as he strikes the finishing D major over and over again. During each of these moments, particularly in the latter one, the notes on the page and their implied resonances seem to transcend the confines of musical expression and imply some sublime realization that Beethoven experienced. In doing so, the Ninth Symphony and other “mainstream” classical music can even make us millennials feel pretty lofty and inspired, 200 years after its debut.
Is this spiritual influence of Beethoven’s Ninth merely given? In other words, can any old conductor, symphony and chorus congregate on a stage and play through the sheet music? Probably not. A work of such emotional strife, anguish, love and heavenly joy demands from its players the utmost sentimental empathy. Each musician must endure the themes that Beethoven intended, recalling some episodic memories that can relate to what’s being played. If a performer can’t feel the music on such a personal level, then a rather uninspired concert will ensue.
Yet, beyond this emotional and lyrical translation, there is a great degree of technical interpretation that comprises a classical performance.
As the bulk of 18th and 19th century composers died well before the advent of sound recording, contemporary performers of classical music are ultimately left to decide amongst themselves what exactly a piece of music is supposed to sound like. This can lead to the utterly pretentious debates between scholars over a composer’s illegible manuscript and whether a certain marking is a grace note or a sixteenth note. However, classical interpretation is often rooted in more nuanced aspects of a piece, including tempo, dynamics or phrasing. It is this interpretation that serves to differentiate the various performances of a single piece as well as the styles of the symphonies that perform them. Although there is generally a correct way of performing any given piece, there exists a plethora of ways to interpret it. This is why one classical work will be recorded thousands of times by a multitude of symphonies under various different conductors. The sheer volume of classical recordings becomes apparent when you search for a certain piece online, or through a streaming service like Spotify.
I remember feeling mostly overwhelmed when, upon making a Spotify premium account and initially looking for some of my favorite pieces, I was greeted by dozens of albums or recordings of the same exact work. In searching for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I counted over 30 different recordings before I became bored. There aren’t any other genres where one can find the same song recorded by so many different artists; even in the case of jazz, the other antiquated genre, most of its famous composers lived during the 20th century and recorded their own music.
In the case of the Ninth Symphony, my above characterization was mainly influenced by one specific recording made by the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Josef Krips. Yet, I also particularly enjoy a recording by the New York Philharmonic as led by Leonard Bernstein. Both recordings, as well as the multitude of others on Spotify, possess their own unique interpretations that highlight entirely different sections of the piece. And this doesn’t apply only to the Ninth Symphony. For example, if in the mood for Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one might prefer a deliberate, historical recording performed on harpsichord, or perhaps a more frantic and contemporary exploration by Glenn Gould on piano.
Spending time sifting through Spotify’s massive classical collection can be a pretty fun time for the lover of classical music. The vastness in scope, combined with Spotify’s extreme ease of use and availability, offers a unique perspective of the nature of classical music. It reveals that classical music is indeed a dynamic artistic endeavor and shouldn’t be treated as being so fixed in one person’s own interpretation, but rather as personal an expression as you (the listener) so desire.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swan’s Song appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.