Amplified by the power of zero.

Mozart is reckoned to have posited that silence, paradoxically, is the most powerful element in music. And I once read that, while there’s one particular zone of your brain that is stimulated when an object starts to produce a sound, it’s a different part that reacts when a clock, for example, ceases its tick-tock and triggers silence. So I thought I would try and find a few works that would demonstrate Mozart’s point, while at the same time comparing and contrasting how different conductors sometimes find it difficult to reflect a composer’s intentions on silence. You may find more than one audio clip, then, representing the same musical extract.

The obvious place to start is John Cage’s 4′ 33″, which is three movements of silence totaling four minutes and thirty-three seconds. No need to play an extract here as it’s been rolling since the start of this blog. Cage’s intention, of course, was to make people focus on ambient, rather than composed sound. Silence takes an active part in Cage’s other works. We can listen here to part of his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, in which decaying sound or silence is as magnetic as the piano sounds he manufactured with the aid of screws and erasers.

Sonata No. 6 (8.559042)


We turn to more conventional fare now with the closing stretch of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony featuring the ‘swan theme’, a melody that suggested itself to Sibelius following the sight and sound of swans circling above him in the haze of early spring sunshine. Just as memorable as the majestic tune are the silences that bring the work to a close, punctuated by short hammer-blows of sound. While some conductors milk those silences for all they’re worth, others seem less persuaded to invest in their power. You can decide for yourself which works best artistically for you.

Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (8.554377)


Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (8.550200)


Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (ODE1035-2)


Another Fifth Symphony now, this time by Mahler. The first movement of the work is a death march. In the final moments the dynamic markings get softer and softer and the rests get ever more telling as a shrouding silence seems to accompany the lowering of a coffin into its final resting place. Mahler’s instruction on the score is that the last note should be given a sudden accent: the drop of a concluding clod of earth, maybe, or that final nail being driven home. Do any of the following seem either more or less scrupulous about observing Mahler’s rests and his desired effects?

Mahler Symphony No. 5 (CD93.101)


Mahler Symphony No. 5 (8.550528)


Mahler Symphony No. 5 (C49052)


And yet another Fifth Symphony now. In one of my previous lives as a concert reviewer, there’s one performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth that stands out. It was being given by the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under their noted conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who certainly knew how to get to the heart of the music. Unfortunately, the orchestra was on tour in south east Asia at the time and the timpanist must have been suffering from a deal of jet-lag. There’s a dramatic silence towards the end of the last movement (often misinterpreted as the end of the work by newcomers in the audience, who might clap prematurely), but on this occasion the timpanist just kept rolling out his very loud roll, solo, until he realised that a couple of thousand pairs of eyes were burning into him. Compare and contrast how that silence is observed in these interpretations.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 (8.550191)


Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 (8.550716)


Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 (C449961B)


If you’ve ever performed Handel’s Messiah, you’ll no doubt have experienced that moment of uncertainty towards the end of the Hallelujah! chorus as you fear having miscounted the number of times you’ve declaimed ‘Hallelujah!’ and end up producing an extra repeat on your own. Handel makes no indication that he then wants a dramatic silence before the final utterance of the word, but many conductors call on the power of such an effect. Here are a couple of examples for you to reflect on.

Hallelujah! (8.550667-68)


Hallelujah! (C60068-2)


Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is full of drama, but one particularly arresting moment is during the finale, when the chorus have declaimed to their full and to the rafters and Beethoven presents a sort of silent sorbet to refresh the ear before the soft opening strains of the Turkish March. Here are three versions for you to compare, including one by a conductor noted for not hanging around in Beethoven’s symphonies.

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (CD93.142)


Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (8.550181)


Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (CD93.088)


In a way, we come full circle with our last piece because Toru Takemitsu (1930-1966) readily acknowledged the influence of John Cage in his compositions. He also wrote:

“Music is either sound or silence. As long as I live I shall choose sound as something to confront a silence. That sound should be a single, strong sound.”

Takemitsu expressed that opinion in 1962, the same year he wrote Corona for pianist(s). By way of reflection, we end with an extract from the opening of that work.

Corona for pianist(s) (NYNG-003)


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