Why Beethoven wrote the best music ever

Although it was of course mostly awful, the coronavirus lockdown also brought a gift – the gift of time. Finally, there was a chance to get that body into shape, master a new skill, reconnect with close friends and family, …

Me, I seem to have spent it all watching YouTube.

That’s not a complete waste of time. There’s a lot of good stuff on there, not least for music nerds. People such as Adam Neely, David Bruce, David Bennet and 12tone manage to make music theory and analysis accessible, even fun. Quite an accomplishment.

And then, I bumped into this one:

I know that title is deliberately crude and silly. It’s supposed to make me mad so I would click on it and – even better – leave a comment. That’s how YouTube works. Well, how the internet works, really.

Beethoven best composer
It never fails.

The movie is a lot more nuanced than you would expect from its title. Its point is not that Beethoven sucks at music. Just that his status as the greatest composer in history is not – and cannot be – based on any objective truth. Because there’s no way to measure musical quality.

So why do we accept Beethoven’s greatness – or Mozart’s, or Bach’s, but never Chevalier de Saint George’s or Florence Price’s? The answer is that the canon of classical music was first compiled by late-19th century Germans who naturally favored the big names of German music.

And now we’re stuck with a classical music culture that’s biased against women, people of color, and all the other folks that 19th century Germans weren’t so keen on. It’s time for change. Let’s take Beethoven of the programs for a few years and give the stage to some unheard voices – as was suggested in this excellent, similarly themed podcast.

All this could have been the perfect intro to a good old rant about ‘woke madness’. But that’s not what I have in mind. In fact, a lot of these reevaluations of our classical canon make perfect sense. They’re also not nearly as new some people think. They’re just finally making it into the mainstream. Which is about time.

But I find it hard to believe that the canon, as 12tone puts it, “has nothing to do with musical quality.” Beethoven’s place on top of the musical Olympus is down to more than him being “in the right place at the right time”. Just consider that …

1. Not all attempts at shaping the canon are successful.

It’s true: the idea of the divide between serious/visionary versus popular/derivative composers is deeply connected to German nationalism. This official version of the musical 19th century can be summarized as follows:

  • All of music culminated in and started again with Beethoven.
  • The ‘progressives’ such as Liszt and Wagner explored Beethoven’s adventurous side.
  • The ‘classicists’ such as Schumann and Brahms devoted themselves to guarding Beethoven’s classical legacy.
  • These two factions were united by Arnold Schoenberg, who was deeply rooted in tradition and showed the way forward – in other words, a new Beethoven.

You might notice that there are a lot of people who don’t fit into that picture. Chopin, for example who didn’t even like Beethoven’s music very much. And indeed, there was a time when this Polish Frenchman was looked down upon in serious music circles. Not only because of his Polish Frenchness, but because his music didn’t quite fit the ‘logical’ progression that would culminate in Schoenberg.

Speaking about Schoenberg, does anybody still believe that he’ll be remembered as the greatest composer of the twentieth century? That he’ll be as popular as Beethoven once people ‘get over’ the unfamiliar harmonies and lack of singable tunes? On the contrary, the popularity of ‘reactionary’, ‘neoromantic’ near-contemporaries such as Vaughan-Williams and Copland seems continuously on the rise.

There definitely was – still is and always will be – an attempt at shaping the canon top-down. But it doesn’t always work. In time, an essential run-down of the top musical names of the last two centuries will include Chopin rather than Schumann, Elgar rather than Richard Strauss and Lennon-McCartney rather than Stockhausen.

Stockhausen Sgt. Pepper's
You might know Stockhausen from the cover Sgt. Pepper’s.

That’s because …

2. The opinion of the masses does matter

“Liking Beethoven is seen as a sign of class and taste”, says 12tone in his video. That’s only true up to a point. I dare you to introduce yourself to a group of pretentious classical music lovers with the confident declaration that you love Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy. You will be greeted with chilly silence and smug smirks. Perhaps someone will ask you if you also like Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812. If so, please don’t answer. It’s sarcasm at your expense.

If you really want to impress that imaginary group of snobs, clearly state your appreciation for:

  • Beethoven’s late string quartets, not the Mondschein sonata
  • Verdi’s Falstaff, not Aida
  • Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, not his Air
  • The list goes on and on.

There’s an unwritten rule among classical elitists that ‘great’ composers are great despite their popular appeal. In other words: if the masses also happen to like them, they do it for the wrong reasons.

When someone states that the elite imposed the canon based on their own aesthetic principles, they’re buying into this myth that the elite entertains about its own power. A lot of times, canonizing is just adding intellectual veneer to a choice that has already been made in the court of popular opinion.

This doesn’t mean that the canon is no more than a long-term hit parade. If that were true, Rossini would be considered the greatest composer of all time. Professional arbiters of taste – such as journalists, academics and musicians – can influence rankings by leveraging their standing in society. But catapulting a nobody with merely ‘interesting’ music to the musical pantheon? Never happened.

What works best is to encourage people to listen more closely to music they already like. Tell them to which deeper layers they should listen and there’s a good chance they will enthusiastically agree. If only because they don’t want to be thought of as unsophisticated. And sometimes because they truly enjoy the music on a deeper level. The chance of that happening is seldom greater than with Beethoven. That’s because …

3. Beethoven and his contemporaries hit a sweet spot that’s difficult to match

In his famous work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – The Classical Style – Charles Rosen writes:

“The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music. […] Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside – or better, fused with – the virtues of the street song.”

Rosen doesn’t include Beethoven in this list, except for the final movement of the Ninth. That’s because he seems to consider only recognizable (pseudo-)folk tunes as popular melodies. But isn’t something like the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of music?

Google search Beethoven 5
Yes, that one.

The whole art of this first Viennese school was to build sophisticated structures with simple elements. And maybe this is the reason why their music remains the best gateway into the pleasure that a complex piece of music can bring. The irresistible and instantly memorable tunes not only draw you in, but also help you to understand, experience and enjoy the larger form.

Once you’re into that listening habit, you can start enjoying music which is pure abstraction, foregoing those catchy tunes and other pleasing elements altogether. Although, quite frankly, why should you have to?

4. Beethoven is a rock star

Stop your eye-roll, I’m not claiming that Beethoven was the rock star of his times. I’m saying that he is one right now. Wait, didn’t Chuck Berry roll him over? But that’s the point. Chuck chose Beethoven – even though he didn’t even fit his rhyme scheme – because Beethoven is an idol. That’s also why 12tone chose him, and why we’re all supposed to get super mad because they’re trying to erase him from our history. Trust me, if Chuck Berry couldn’t cancel Beethoven, neither can a bunch of underpaid woke scholars in musicology. If they wanted to. Which they don’t.

Beethoven is not a darling of the elite foisted upon us, he’s a part of our global popular culture. That’s because of his literal image – the bushy hair, the shabby clothes. And because of his supposed unconformity and disdain for social conventions which aligns perfectly with how a lot of people like to see themselves – especially when they’re young.

The bottom line is: Beethoven is cool. And apart from his afro and his attitude, I think there are a number of musical reasons for why he’s such a good fit with our popular music culture:

  • His repertoire is mainly instrumental, which helps because the handling of the voice is what puts a lot of people off classical music.
  • His music has a rhythmic drive that combines a regular beat with plenty of syncopation, just like a lot of jazz and popular music.
  • His harmonic language is tonal – not too chromatic and complex but not too bland either, with plenty of major/minor shifts. From the classical/romantic composers, only Schubert was closer to pop music harmony in this respect.
  • Most importantly, but hardest to describe, Beethoven’s music – at least that from his ‘heroic’ middle period – has an emotional charge that resonates well with how a lot of people still define ‘depth’ in music. It’s sad but not schmaltzy, sarcastic but not funny, noble but not arrogant, … You get my point – or not. It’s why today we value acts like Nick Cave or The National. It’s not only about the notes, it’s also about the attitude.

To conclude: Beethoven is not the greatest composer of all time, but he is the greatest classical composer for our time. That’s not because his music is objectively the best. But it’s also not because we’re collectively brainwashed by a white supremacist elite. It’s because his music like no other from the classical tradition combines accessibility with what we perceive as emotional depth. And it’s because of his hair.

One thought on “Why Beethoven wrote the best music ever

  1. It’s basic common sense. The greatest classical composers are a battle between Bach, Boulogne and Beethoven. The others such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are battling to be greats, not the greatest, and Mozart does not deserve to be in that group. As a child, I was always confused by the praise Mozart got compared to other great classical composers, but only when I became an adult did I make my feelings clear not caring to be ridiculed. Studying classical music only made more certain that Mozart is a fraud on terms of being seen as great or the greatest. He was nothing more than a con artist able to steal ideas from others with one listen. Bach showed us what good classical music sounds like, Boulogne showed us how far classical music can go and Beethoven showed us what classical perfection sounds like.

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