Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - 4 great conductors, 4 points of view

Every piece of music is a canvas, a mould, a shape that can be manipulated and formed to constantly find within it something new and exciting.

The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is probably one of the most well known pieces of all time and it is surprising therefore how much interpretation can affect how it is played and received as it could easily be slotted into that infamous category of “those unchanging pieces that everyone knows”. Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and Gustavo Dudamel are all renowned conductors that have  performed this masterpiece. It is fascinating to see that through their body language alone they communicate their own personal vision and insight to the orchestra, culminating in four completely unique versions of the same piece. From tempo to dynamics, the conductor is constantly present  throughout the piece. 

Before delving into the style of these four world class conductors, it is important to first understand what might have influenced their styles and choices within the realization of such an iconic piece. Daniel Barenboim has probably one of the most interesting backgrounds out of these four conductors. Born in Argentina and raised in countries such as Israel, Germany and Austria, one might expect his style of conducting to be as unique and diverse as they come. The American conductor Leonard Bernstein was raised in Massachusetts but was exposed to many great German and French conductors in his education and meeting Dimitri Mitropoulos also greatly influenced him as a young conductor, even though he was never in fact taught by Mitropoulos. Herbert von Karajan was of Austrian origin, whose career took a huge leap when he was declared Germany’s youngest ever “Generalmusikdirektor” when he was only 27 years old. Gustavo Dudamel was born in Argentina just like Barenboim however during his early career he moved to Salzburg to work with Simon Rattle. 

All of these conductors have a very strong connections with Germany and would therefore be expected to reflect mostly German characteristics in their conducting style. Whilst that is partially  true, each conductor reveals traits of their individual influences through their mannerisms and stylistic approach. Each conductor therefore brings something different out of the overture of Beethoven’s fifth. First it is important to discuss the general approach of each conductor to the piece, focusing on the individuals behind the vision before moving on to specific segments of the piece and their execution. 

Gustavo Dudamel approaches the piece with instant energy, franticity and urgency. He commands with a strong hand resulting in a particularly strong bowing from the string section. He uses his eyes to communicate a foreshadowing, such as when the tempo and timbre softens, he looks at the orchestra in an almost dangerous way to communicate the impending ferocity that is to follow. He uses slow cool movements with tense hands to express and bring out passion in the orchestra, giving a slight shaking of the hands here and there to suggest aggressiveness. His general style, the movements he makes and his resting pose are minimal. His reserved conducting style brings out more in the orchestra at the slightest extra movement and he leads the orchestra the entire way, leaving no room for anything but his vision, conducting with a firm Germanic hand and a strong Latino passion. Dudamel’s body, more than anything else, takes on and communicates the true shape of the music he is interpreting - curving his back and leaning towards certain parts of the orchestra, effectively engaging their attention moving in sync like a Latino dancer. 

 Herbert Von Karajan also communicates a strong sense of urgency. His rapid movement communicate a stronghold over the orchestra and yet Karajan’s style is much more open than Dudamel’s. He uses larger gestures with sharp clear endings. Karajan’s movement is also very introverted and flurrying. This, as an effect, draws the orchestra toward the director, constantly focused on him as he shapes out waved live moments with his arms, texturing the piece as he feels necessary. A certain robotism comes across in more aggressive segments of the piece in the way his arms are places directly in front of him, lifting and descending without bending, creating a feeling of perpetual motion, driving the orchestra forward like a musical engine. Stylistically, it is clear that the bold German bravado comes across in his systematic and almost mechanic use of his arms. 

Leonard Bernstein takes a radically different approach to conducting and realizing this piece. Not only does the piece take a much slower tempo under his direction but his body language is very clearly characteristic in terms of what he is asking for, meaning that he embodies the music and its textures through various physical techniques. Interestingly, he conducts with a somewhat Italian light heartedness and frivolity. Levels seem very important in Bernstein’s conducting style; his hands are high when being delicate and low when grave aggressive and sudden. This is a clear direction to the orchestra, easily identifiable and recognizable. His movement is rounded and somewhat cursive, drawing lines through the air in shapes and forms. The effectiveness of this is only amplified by the use of his hands, which he opens, closes, tenses and twists in various expressive forms. He truly feels the music, his eyes are more often than not closed and seem only to open when looking directly at particular sections of the orchestra. After the first real pause in the music, there is a reprise of the opening tune and his body language suddenly becomes graver, solidifying his movement, shortening endings into a sharp finish. Still, his movement remains large and expressive. This conductor is very adaptable and moves with ease between sudden textural and musical changes. 

Daniel Barenboim conducts with decisiveness and determination. His gestures are further in front of him than any of the other conductors. As a conductor, he truly feels like a guiding hand rather than a dictator and this is particularly emphasized when he does not constantly move the orchestra, meaning that he is not constantly marking the tempo and keeping them on point like a herd of sheep. He queues and textures where needed, and when doing so, focuses fully on what he is doing, investing confidence in the orchestra to keep the tempo going. His trust in them helps bring out musicians within the music and allows the piece to flow smoothly without rushing. His movement, like Bernstein, is very round but with a touch more fluidity. His style is less coarse and Germanic in that sense as he conveys instead a strong French or Italian romanticism which sets him apart from the other three conductors. 

The opening passage of this piece is one of the most interesting and revealing. It demonstrates a lot about each conductor’s approach and style. One could, in a certain context, group these four conductors into two groups of two. Due to dynamics, tempo and the relationship with the orchestra, it is possible to group Bernstein and Barenboim together with the more relaxed and loose styling of the piece and Dudamel with Von Karajan, leading with a firm Germanic drive and vigour. The first five bars are brought to life with Dudamel and Von Karajan leading the orchestra, constantly present, queuing, marking tempo and texturing all at the same time in a very rehearsed and flawless way. One might debate whether or not that withdraws from the general experience of the music or follows the instruction “Allegro con brio” which translates as “Lively with spirit”. 

Bernstein and Barenboim take on this masterpiece with more of a willingness to lean towards interpretation. Both conductors seem to invest more trust into their orchestra. Conducting “con brio” is looked upon differently by Bernstein and Barenboim which is reflected in their interpretations - giving it soul and the “spirit of god” perhaps - bringing out within the piece, swells of emotion instead of a steaming and forward moving engine. For this reason, there is a feeling that both Dudamel and Von Karajan, whilst having perfect controls over the orchestra, do not perhaps allow their orchestra space to affirm their own creativity which might in turn leave something missing in the piece. This being said, their domination and clear vision is unquestionably communicated and executed with the utmost precision. Bernstein's technique allows him to give queues that are obeyed instantly whereas Barenboim signals a queue before enacting it, hence why his position as a director can be seen more so as a guide - after all “a conductor should guide rather than command” in the words of conductor Riccardo Muti. Each conductor has given new life to this magnificent composition and each has a very clear view of what the piece is demanding. There is a strong divide between Dudamel and Von Karajan who seem to employ an Urtext, by the book rendition of the piece while Bernstein and Barenboim seem to be more free in style, interpretation and movement. This bores down to all of these directors’ individual influences and backgrounds, also suggesting that a piece of music is only as good, beautiful or emotional as the individual interpreting it understands and performs it.