Wanna Have Some Musical Fun?
I have 14 different recorded performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, 23 of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, 11 of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, and at least 8 of his Waltz No. 2. I also have multiple live and studio performances of all kinds of rock and pop music, either performed by the same artists at different venues and times or with the same principal performer(s) and different support personnel — ranging all the way from just different backup players or singers to a full symphony orchestra (Deep Purple "In Concert with The London Symphony Orchestra" 1999, for example).
And finally, I have (or can download) any number of instrumental versions of songs that were originally vocals; the vocal versions of tunes that were originally instrumental; and myriad re-arrangements or transcriptions of music that achieved popularity in one form, rhythm, orchestration, or style and inspired covers or re-statements of them in others. (Consider Joe Cocker and the Beatles. or Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole singing the same thing, while accompanying himself on the ukulele)
It's a musical feast out there, even if you consider just one piece of music, and the totality of all the music now recorded and available in all its forms and versions seems utterly beyond comprehension!
The interesting thing is that — for Classical music, at least — the music is all there, in notes on paper and, except for whatever cadenzas (places, especially in a concerto, where a soloist is intended to improvise for a set number of bars) there might be, is supposed to always be played exactly as written, with whatever orchestration may be indicated. Even so, performances can come out wildly different.
The last movement of the Shostakovich 15, for example, when played by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, [Decca 417 581-2] has a mystical, almost Carl Orff-like, out-of-space, and out-of-time, magical quality to it. Exactly the same notes and time signatures, though, played by Evgeni Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Symphony orchestra [Japanese Victor VDC-1123] sound like a revolution in a clock shop. And another recording of the same thing by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra [High Performance 09026-63587-2] sounds like... Eugene Ormandy, and trips lightly through Shostakovich's final symphonic work as if it were just "band practice", apparently noticing nothing about it all and giving it no significance whatsoever
As with practically all great music, there are many more recording of this work, and they all sound different, not only in their quality of recording, but in the way the music is performed and in its emotional appeal. (The Haitink version is, IMHO, one of the greatest Classical music recordings of all time. And, as of today, November 23, 2020, there's an unopened, brand new LP copy of it on e-bay for just $29!)
Big differences from the same piece of music, even when it's all written down and everybody's performing the same thing? Hmmmm, reminds me of something very similar in another field, entirely:
Formula Vee auto racing started in the 1960s, when a group of people found themselves facing a hitherto unsolvable problem: At the end of a race, how can you tell which won, the car or the driver? When everybody is allowed (within class restrictions) to pour as much money and as much technology as they want to into the development and perfection of their car, that question of "which won" can get really hard to answer. It can also lead to the spending of huge amounts of money on a race car and making racing a sport only for the rich.
Formula Vee was designed to counter that by requiring that all cars in the Formula Vee Class be — except for color and racing number — identical: same monoposto body, same chassis, same suspension, same engine (stock 1963 Volkswagen), same instrumentation, same tires, same fuel, and same weight. In short, exactly the same car, with no modifications of any kind, as compared, for example, with NASCAR rules, which allow substantial variation within a rigid, but often changing, set of rules.
The result of Formula Vee was that, with all drivers driving exactly the same machine, you could, for the first time ever, be certain that if Jim Smith in Car #43 won the race, it was because Jim Smith was the better or luckier driver, and not because Car #43 was the better or faster car.
Aren't Classical music performances exactly the same thing — everybody playing the same notes off the same written page — so that if you like one version better than another or are moved by it more, you can be certain that it was the performance, and NOT the music that did it?
With other-than-Classical music, the variations from performer to performer or even from performance to performance by the same performer can be even greater. Think of jazz variations on any of the great classic tunes of that genre where it can easily get to the point that, even if you know the tune, you may not be able to spot it among the improvisations without being told in advance what you're listening to.
And then there's the Classical melody that's been turned into a popular favorite like Tony Bennett's huge 1955 "Stranger in Paradise" or any of the songs from the Broadway musical (and then movie) Kismet, all composed as symphonic works by Alexander Borodin. And, of course there are "Till the End of Time", "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and others by Frederic Chopin of which, even if they don't know the name, people almost always recognize the tune.
And how about the transcriptions from one instrument to another or the outright appropriation of a piece of music and its conversion to another genre, altogether. Beethoven's 5th going disco (Walter Murphy, A Fifth of Beethoven strikes me as the near perfect example.
The musical possibilities are truly endless, so, as I asked in the title of this article, "Wanna have some fun?" Here's my plan:
Pick out 27 copies of Scheherazade or whatever else might float your boat — mixed instruments, mixed styles, or mixed genres of all the same thing is just fine — and sit down and listen to them. (If you've got a streaming service, your choice should be more than sufficient to give you anything you could possibly desire.) Listen to how different they are. Listen to how much the same they are. Feel how differently each one affects you.