When the Berlin Philharmonic Performed John Cage’s Iconic Piece 4′33″, Capturing the Solitude of the Pandemic (2020)

In late Octo­ber 2020, amidst anoth­er surge of the COVID-19 virus, the Ger­man gov­ern­ment asked the Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic to close down for a month. On the eve of their clo­sure, the Phil­har­mon­ic per­formed John Cage’s mod­ernist com­po­si­tion, 4′33″, which asks per­form­ers not to play their instru­ments through­out the entire dura­tion of the piece, allow­ing the audi­ence to expe­ri­ence the some­times awk­ward, some­times unex­pect­ed sounds of silence. In this par­tic­u­lar moment, the Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic offered a poignant com­men­tary on the silence and iso­la­tion expe­ri­enced dur­ing the pan­dem­ic.

The web­site, Clas­si­cal Voice North Amer­i­ca, breaks down the per­for­mance as fol­lows: The con­duc­tor Kir­ill Petrenko “defined each of the three move­ments in 4’33” with a par­tic­u­lar affect. In the first move­ment, he seemed to be con­duct­ing a con­ven­tion­al piece that wasn’t there. In the sec­ond move­ment, his hands were posi­tioned near his face, as if ask­ing for qui­et or like a priest pro­nounc­ing a bene­dic­tion. In the third move­ment, his hands stretched toward the orches­tra, fin­gers splayed in one hand, with a search­ing facial expres­sion. He was near tears with sor­row and grief. ‘What is this? What is hap­pen­ing?’ he seemed to ask. ‘I don’t under­stand!’ ” We all felt that way at some point.

Watch the per­for­mance above.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch John Cage Play His “Silent” 4′33″ in Har­vard Square, Pre­sent­ed by Nam June Paik (1973)

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4′33″

Watch John Cage’s 4′33″ Played by Musi­cians Around the World

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