VOX: dictionary definition, ´a voice or sound´

VOX:  dictionary definition, ´a voice or sound´

by Norman Warwick

Statue at Beethoven´s birthplace

So, how well do we really know this practically omnipresent piece of Beethoven´s music and what do we know about the man himself? What’s so special about those famous opening notes? Of all the symphonies of the bewigged classical “greats,” why is this one still stuck in our heads more than two centuries later? Some of the answers can be found via Vox magazine at


New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Magazine writers Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding were trying to answer these questions by giving Beethoven’s symphony the same treatment we give to pop songs by artists like Drake and Billie Eilish on their podcast Switched on Pop — this time with the accompaniment of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The 5th, a new four-part series, breaks down the music and meaning of this inescapable symphony so that we can hear it with fresh ears.

In the first episode, the journalists talk to the musicians of the Philharmonic about how the symphony’s stormy first movement come to life.

Jaap van Zweden directs

The orchestra has, like all performing arts ensembles across the world, been only able to perform virtually since the emergence of covid 19, and has growing needs of financial support. If you would like to know how you could help them in their fight to survive, visit  https://nyphil.org/

Nevertheless, the NY Philharmonic Orchestra has performed the Fifth almost 900 times since they debuted it in the US in 1842, so they know their way around it. Jaap van Zweden began his tenure as the 26th Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in September 2018. He also serves as Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, a post he has held since 2012. He has conducted orchestras on three continents, appearing as guest with leading orchestras such as, in Europe, the Orchestre de Paris, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and, London Symphony Orchestra, and, in the United States, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In the 2019–20 season, prior to the lockdowns due to the coronavirus Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in four World Premieres and symphonic cornerstones. As part of the launch of Project 19, the multiyear initiative marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment with commissions by 19 women.

Jaap van Zweden told Vox magazine that he feels the weight of that history every time he lifts his baton, especially when performing Beethoven´s fifth.

´If you work with the New York Philharmonic, this piece is in their DNA from the first day they started to play concerts … it’s like a bloodline.´

Even so, every time the orchestra performs this work, there’s a tension in the air. Those opening notes are always ´a very tricky moment´ for van Zweden.

It is easy for non-musician members of the public to overlook the fact that any live performance of the piece requires often more than 60 musicians to come in together perfectly, to the precise split second. They have to nail that famous theme, because the whole symphony is riding on them.

According to van Zweden, this is “the most important thing when I walk onstage, that the piece ´should be one long line till the last note of the last movement … it is like almost one sentence.´ He wants the audience on the edge of their seat, paying attention to each twist and turn in an instrumental epic.

If they get it right, van Zweden and his musicians create the start of a musical drama that ricochets between victory and defeat over four movements. To hear it, we have to listen like a pop fan from the 1800s, to translate the symphony’s abstract melodies into heroes and villains.

When the drama of the symphony comes into focus, we can better assess what it means to us today, and decide how we want to commemorate a composer who represents liberation and resilience for some, elitism and exclusion for others. The Fifth is the key to unlocking Beethoven’s complicated legacy — and it all starts with the first four notes. Dun dun dun DUNNN.

The first episode of  The 5th is available now, at  https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21428033/beethoven-5th-symphony-switched-on-pop-new-york-philharmonic

by subscribing to  Switched on Pop wherever you find podcasts, including Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

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Vox, the former monthly UK music print magazine from the NME newspaper organisation, is now part of the Discogs community and claims its mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower readers through understanding. But their distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining their resource-intensive work, and helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. 

For more information on Beethoven the man why not search our archives for the post A Life In Nine Pieces, a review of a comprehensive new biography of the composer, and perhaps follow our recommendation that you treat yourself to a copy of the book for Christmas.

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