Monday, May 16, 2005

In Search of The Greatest

In the catalog of all music across all genres, is it impossible to make a declaration as to the “greatest single piece of music ever”? A daunting task, yes, but, maybe surprisingly, I contend that there is indeed a single piece that can make that claim – the 9th symphony of Ludwig Van Beethoven in D Minor.

This piece, at once majestic, at once playful, at once beautiful, at once dark and foreboding, should be listed amongst not only the greatest works in music but also one of the greatest single achievements by man. Consider that this work represents one of, if not the, greatest and most important composers at his greatest. And then realize that much of it (not all, as is often thought) was composed by a man who was entirely deaf.

Strictly examining the music, there are other pieces that may be able to make a run for this title: Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” or Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” as examples. That is not to suggest, in any way, that musically this is an average piece – it’s just in great company. Only part of my arguments here rest in the music, and thus I’m not going to go through an in depth analysis of the music. However, you can find many analyses out there which demonstrate the strength of the notes themselves (here's a good place to start).

Outside of the raw score, its impact on music runs far and wide. Here, I will highlight two ideas as support. The first is in the development of musical form. This symphony does not follow the common sonata form throughout, and while not the first to do so, it is one of the cornerstone pieces in the migration from the classical period to the romantic period of music. The importance of this cannot be simply expressed – try to imagine a world in which music was based on defined rules and not the music of the heart or soul. In this world, there could be no “Kind of Blue” or “Love Supreme”, there could be no Led Zeppelin “IV”, there could be no “Joshua Tree”. The romantics opened the door for all of this, and Beethoven’s 9th was instrumental (pun fully intended) to making it happen.

The second area of impact has to do with influence on other musicians. As simple evidence, both Brahms and Mahler, two amazing symphonic composers in their own right, expressed concern and intimidation about even attempting to write a symphony after having heard Beethoven’s work. Imagine that - for a great composer to say that he didn’t even want to try to write a symphony just supports the respect that they had for the piece. They all knew that the greatest symphony had already been written.

Let me try to put all of these arguments in a more modern context. Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player to date. Put in the same sentence with names like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, you have a similar group of people to their genre as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were to music. So now, let’s look at Jordan’s greatest performances – the “flu” game against Utah in ’98 or his dropping of 55 against Phoenix in the ’93 finals. Pick one. Now imagine he did the same thing, but with closing his eyes on every shot. Musician composing while deaf – hearing the music in his head, just like basketball player playing with his eyes closed – seeing the basket in his mind.

Okay, and now imagine that guys like Lebron James, Carmello Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and some of the other upcoming stars, all said that they were hesitant about even playing the game after seeing Jordan – already having seen the greatest player and performance made it not worth it to even try.

Hopefully you’re getting a sense of why this symphony is the greatest piece of music ever. Don’t believe me? Listen to it again…


Post a Comment

<< Home