Wednesday, 18 September 2013

What is the greatest piece of Classical music?


This is quite easy, so long as the word 'greatest' is clarified: it is Beethoven's Third Symphony - the 'Eroica'.

(This fact suddenly struck me with complete conviction as I was listening to the final movement on the car radio!)

Beethoven's third is, of course, a first rate piece of music; it is extremely enjoyable even to those of only modest musical understanding; it both starts and ends well (always important!) and it is long enough to impose its greatness.

But what makes this particular piece stand above all its rivals?

Not that it is better than any other - many other pieces are its equal; not that it is my personal favourite piece of music (that would be Mozart's opera The Magic Flute), and Bach was a better composer, qua composer - but the following:

1. Beethoven was the first 'great composer' - in the modern sense of a creative and original genius who was self-consciously, titanically grappling-with and reshaping his material using the whole of his large personal resources. Before Beethoven composers were servants and craftsmen, after Beethoven they were self-consciously striving to be great - like Wagner - hence diminished by some element of pretense.

2. Within Beethoven's own life, the Third Symphony was precisely that point at which he became great, fully expressed himself - yet before he became obviously assertive of his greatness by deliberate novelties and strainings (as for example in the finale of the Ninth Symphony - rather too obviously trying to impress...).

3. The Eroica has energy, technique, fluency, invention, lyricism - in a word spontaneity: it is an explosive and sustained overflow of the power of a young but mature genius just hitting his straps and surprising even himself. That kind of thing cannot be repeated - once he had done it, he knew it could be done.

4. In the history of classical music, the Third symphony is as much of a watershed as any other piece, since it was chock-full of technical innovations and a new spirit which was widely emulated. Before the Eroica was the Classical era, and after was Romanticism.

So this is quite an easy choice - Beethoven in general and the Eroica in particular are 'the greatest' in an objective and unrepeatable sense.



  1. I share your enthusiasm for Beethoven's music in general and for the Eroica in particular. Whether his genius and that symphony are "the greatest in an objective and unrepeatable sense" is impossible to say - except, I suppose, as a subjective opinion.

    There is always, it seems to me, an authority and nobility in the music of the mature Beethoven that is never quite matched by any other composer.

  2. @Alex - I feel that there has to be an objectivity about these matters if they are to be worth mentioning - otherwise it would just be matter of Desert Island Discs - eight
    recordings that mean something in my life. Beethoven's place in the history of classical music, is objective, so is the place of Eroica in Beethoven's ouvre - but of course that kind of 'influence' isn't enough: personal evaluations of quality must come into it as well, otherwise you get absurdities such as some people regarding Picasso as the greatest artist.

  3. When listening to Puccini's "One Fine Day", Elgar's "Cello Concerto" or any of my many other "favourites" I find each one, at that moment, unassailable in it's brilliance.
    At that moment points 1-4 have very little importance.

  4. @s - Agreed, but still... Can anyone come up with a better candidate, given the basic rules of this 'greatness' game?

  5. The Marriage of Figaro is a wonderful thing: the first few bars of the overture lift my heart every time I hear it.

    And, as my schoolteacher would have insisted, it is Classical while Beethoven's stuff is Romantic.

    P.S. I think B's seventh a very remarkable piece but I don't know enough about music to say why it is.

  6. Hmm. Of Beethoven's symphonies, I enjoy the third the least. Can't say why. I like the seventh best (like dearieme, I infer).

    But this seems like a good place to say that Beethoven's last three piano sonatas were an element (among many elements) in bringing me back from atheism to Christianity. Some works of art are so transcendental that I cannot believe they were created without some channel from the divine to the composer/painter/architect. There is much of late Beethoven that I am certain benefitted from divine inspiration, including the last five piano concertos, a bunch of the late string quartets, and the ninth symphony (where I agree that the choral in the finale is relatively weak compared to the rest).

  7. @JC - Yes but...

    But anyhow, you might be interested to know (if you don't already) the big role played by Betthoven's Op 111 in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (which is about a composer - fused from Schoenberg and Nietzsche - selling his soul to the devil/ deliberately contracting syphylis to become great - with the implication that this is what Nietzsche and (Nazi) Germany had done).

  8. Whilst not being able to compete on any of your four points may I be cheeky and point out that Allegri's "Miserere" stands alone in being considered of such spiritual importance that it was protected by the Vatican.
    Was copied by a young Mozart, from memory, after listening to it's performance, though he was reputedly summoned but not excommunicated by the pope due to his feat of musical genius.
    So, backed by the Church, with a good story and being performed by the Castrati, a greater physical sacrifice for it's performance than was given to any of Beethoven's works, it's got to be the greatest piece of Classical music surely?

  9. @s - That is an ingenious argument!

    It is a sublime piece - albeit very short (lots of repeats).

    Musically, it does not stand above many other 'one off' masterpieces by minor composers - such as the Cricifixus by Caldara.

    Also, the physical sacrifice was not undertaken voluntarily - it was a typically Leftist bureaucratic sacrifice, imposed by officials on 'other people', with the officials taking credit for the good outcomes (but not the costs, ill effects and unpleasant consequences).

    Now, if Allegri had castrated himself...

  10. "Also, the physical sacrifice was not undertaken voluntarily - it was a typically Leftist bureaucratic sacrifice, imposed by officials on 'other people', with the officials taking credit for the good outcomes (but not the costs, ill effects and unpleasant consequences)."

    Without defending either leftist bureaubots or the repellent practice of making castrati, I'd like to point out that castrati (Farinelli, for instance) were typically submitted for the operation by their families in the hopes of improving the family fortunes, not selected for emasculation by officialdom. Of course, official toleration of the practice was still reprehensible and heartless.


  11. @bbtp - Actually, I don't think much is known about the procedure by which castrati were obtained - there was a lot of secrecy and lying, and probably a variety of routes.

    But probably you are correct about the usual proximate mechanism for selection - however, the context was provided by the 'official' choirs and soloists. Once the demand for castrati stopped, so did the supply.

    There is an interesting - I wouldn't say it was 'good' - novel by Kingsley Amis, with a potential castrato as its protagonist - set in a dystopian Roman Catholic future. The real subject matter is the question - which is more important great art, or reproductive sex? The book sticks in the mind.

  12. I have to agree, with a secondary mention of Bruckner's 4th: the triumph of the human sublime in ego-denial in religious ecstasy. Get the Salonen version.

  13. While taking nothing away from Beethoven or his Third Symphony (which I’m listening to right now, in fact), I’d like to try to play the “greatness” game, but with Don Giovanni as a contender. To take each point in turn:

    1. Mozart attempted to make his living independently as a composer as well. After his move from Salzburg to Vienna, he did not have a steady patron. If I recall correctly, Beethoven had readier donors than Mozart--though both did attempt to break free of the patronage system. (Side note: even after Beethoven, many important composers depended on patronage. Wagner would have been sunk without Ludwig II, and Schoenberg left several pieces unfinished because the Guggenheim Foundation turned down his request for funding.) I think the characteristics applied to Beethoven are equally applicable to Mozart: creative, original, self-consciously aiming toward greatness, grappling with their musical materials, and having large personal resources.

    2. Don Giovanni was not the first of Mozart’s compositions that established his greatness. Certainly he came to greatness before 1787. With Don Giovanni he outdid himself.

    3. As in point 1, but with a twist, all of the characteristics apply to Don Giovanni even more strongly than the Eroica. This applies most strongly to the lyrical elements, at least if by “lyrical” you mean “melodic.” To evaluate a melody is difficult; at the least, “Là ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” are more singable. Mozart never repeated Don Giovanni either; if anything, Don Giovanni points away from operas like The Magic Flute, the Ave verum corpus, and the Requiem, all of which are much simpler.

    Also, I’m not sure a spontaneous sound is the best description of either work--or of good music, at least not without some qualification. When practicing the piano, I made a lot of spontaneous music. Most of it sounded abominable.

    4. If the Eroica is as much of a watershed as any other piece, then it is as much of a watershed as Don Giovanni (or any other piece, for that matter). I’m not sure what the major technical innovations of Beethoven’s Third are. Admittedly, I’ve not done a thorough study of the symphony, but nothing stood out to me as being technically new. There were not, for instance, several melodies in several meters playing simultaneously, as Mozart did in the first act finale of DG. As a matter of genre, Mozart’s opera is also difficult to classify: is it opera buffa (which is how Mozart himself classed it), or opera seria?

    The new “revolutionary” spirit of Beethoven also had Mozart as a forerunner. To take one brief but catchy example: in the finale of Act I, all of the characters, led by the Don himself, join in a fanfare and thunder “Viva la libertà” two years before the French Revolution. Revolution was certainly in the air at that point, and Mozart caught its fire.

    Such is my case for giving Don Giovanni and Mozart first place.

  14. I am not qualified to say what is the greatest single piece of music, but the criteria for the candidates must include:

    1) taking listeners out of their normal state into a powerful unfolding musical and emotional journey;

    2) reaching beyond its time and culture;

    3) influencing or initiating a new musical movement or school.

    Bach, Beethoven and Mozart certainly qualify. As to the choice of a specific work, that is more subjective. (Still, I would love to sit in with a fine orchestra playing all of the candidates.)

  15. @Fpen - That is a good argument and a strong case.

    In fact George Bernard Shaw, who ranks as one of the most important ever music critics, would almost certainly agree with you - I can't remember if he says it explicitly in one place, but he clearly regarded Don Giovanni as the greatest piece of music ever.

    Unfortunately I could not agree, because although it has many superb parts, for me the opera does not hang together at some deep level - so I cannot help but regard it as a sequence of concert pieces. Now this is a strange thing to say - considering my love for Magic Flute which really IS a sequence of pieces! - but for me the Don just doesn't cohere at the deepest level, while Flute does.

    But I would say the Don is perhaps the strongest other candidate to rival Eroica.

  16. Rachmaninoff's Vespers get my vote. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine a flock of angels descending.

  17. @k8 I think you mean that it is your favorite piece; I don't think you could argue that it was crucial in the history of classical music.