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January 18, 2008

Greatest. Music. Ever.

By: Bernard Chazelle

The Allegretto from Beethoven's 7th is the greatest piece of music in the Western canon. Schubert said so; Wagner agreed; and though I've long considered The Right Brothers' "Bush was Right" a strong contender for the title, in the end where Wagner goes I go.

But why? The melody is catchy; the harmony is simple; the boum-boumboum-boum-boum rhythm is neat, processional, and so pre-20th c. Yet this music is deeply heartbreaking. Its poignancy is almost physical. I've heard it hundreds of times over decades and it always feels fresh and enchanting. What's going on?

Husserl obsessed over it and modern psychologists have tried to understand why it is so powerful. Lung experts have even investigated its effect on breathing patterns. (I kid you not!) A musicologist friend of mine back at Yale thought he found the hidden key to the Allegretto's mystery in folk dancing. Folk dancing? We're trying to understand the H-bomb of music and from Yale what do we get? Square dancing!

For those of you into this sort of thing, a few technical details. The tune is in Am with a middle part in A major. The Am piece consists of a melody in two parts played in alternation over and over again. You get the first one at O:11-O:25, then the second one kicks in O:26-O:40. The idea is to go from Am to C (its relative major) and then back to Am. The harmonic motion is fairly conventional (especially the first submelody, which has a parallel harmony (Am-E7/C-G7) that you find in countless rock tunes, eg, the Stones' Paint It Black).

At 0:53 Beethoven slaps another melody on top of that and it begins to sound polyphonic. It gets fuller and fuller at each repeat, moving into the upper register, with the whole orchestra getting into the action. Then we break to the A major part at 3:00, with echoes of the Pastoral Symphony (my favorite), and we snap out of it at 4:30. Now you don't want to miss the exit, which is pure Duke Ellington gold! Well, almost... Catch it at 4:16-4:29. Cool, huh?

At 4:30 we're back to our sweet little melody in Am, and Ludwig decides to keep the wind instruments going. At 5:27 things get exciting! Beethoven wants to show you he's mastered his "Art of Fugue" and decide to pile contrapuntal runs of 16th notes on top of the opening melody. If you're familiar with Beethoven, you know where this is headed: back to the opening chordal sequence now played with all the amps at max volume. (No wonder Herr Wagner loved that stuff). This is the emotional peak of the movement. The rest is just mopping up after the party (a "coda" in the trade).

The Allegretto is often played -unlike here- as a slow movement (in fact its popularity put pressure on conductors to substitute it for the slow movement of any symphony!). If you want to be a strict musical constructionist, this is plain wrong. Beethoven called it an "allegretto" (hint, hint) and his metronome marks are, in anything, faster than played by Karajan.

OK, this kind of analysis is great fun if you're an amateur musician, but it's completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Why is the music so great? I haven't answered that.

I will now. Here's my theory (warning: I call any dumb-ass half-baked idea of mine a "theory." When the baking is 2/3 ready it becomes a grand theory; at 3/4 it enters grand unified theory territory). The theory is that it has to do with anticipation. What makes music so pleasurable is the interplay of what you hear and what you anticipate (which is why first listenings are almost never terribly enjoyable). If you listen to the Allegretto a lot and let it sing in your head, you'll begin to hear not just the harmony provided by the composer but a million others you anticipate subconsciously. Like sea waves crashing upon the shore and interfering among one another in unpredictable ways. Somehow, it seems that Beethoven engineered the most fabulous interferences ever. End of theory.

Now I want to hear your theories. (Or why you think "Bush was Right" is better music.)

After completing his symphony, Beethoven confided to a friend: "I am at last learning to compose."

Those uppity Germans.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at January 18, 2008 08:07 PM

A musicologist friend of mine back at Yale thought he found the hidden key to the Allegretto's mystery in folk dancing. Folk dancing? We're trying to understand the H-bomb of music and from Yale what do we get? Square dancing!

This is really...wrong headed. I will never understand the propensity for you rarefied classical-music types to disdain anything not written by upper class dead white males in Western European countries (and their ideological descendants).

Duke Ellington, to contrast, was all about the "square dancing."

Posted by: Alaya at January 18, 2008 09:21 PM

I find that the precursor to "Bush was Right" has a more rough and ready feel, but still manages to strike at the heart of what music is all about.

"Slavery, fuck yeah"

Posted by: John Angliss at January 18, 2008 09:30 PM

Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" is very good, too.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 18, 2008 10:03 PM

Germans have a right to be uppity. Any civilization that can claim to produce Rainer Maria Rilke has the right to be.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at January 18, 2008 10:51 PM

I always knew that my recording of the 7th was sub-par. They do this movement slow and sludgy. I gotta seek out a new one now.

Although in general if I'm going to listen to pre-20th century music I'm more of a baroque man. I like the way JS Bach's music sounds like it was written by robots who have worked out the perfect beauty-creating algorithm.

Posted by: ethan at January 18, 2008 11:31 PM


Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 19, 2008 12:05 AM

ethan: actually my true contender is the passacaglia in Cm.

Of course django by the modern jazz quartet is as baroque as jazz has ever gotten.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 19, 2008 01:27 AM

mistah charley: music i listened to in grad school. now you're bringing back memories.

john: you've opened new horizons!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 19, 2008 01:37 AM

In pop-culture - wasn't it used in some stupid sci-fi 60s movie with Sean Connery?

Posted by: abb1 at January 19, 2008 03:12 AM

Sorry, Lud's 9th is the greatest piece of music on the planet, bar none; von Karajan's 83 recording for the chorale, Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic in 79 for the rest. Second choice, close second, Karl Bohm and Placido Domingo in the mid 70s.

Course, a hundred years from now people may say the same about Miles' brilliant Pangaea/Agharta sets, if they can get the hamsters to spin the turntable at a constant speed.

Posted by: cavjam at January 19, 2008 03:43 AM

I like the 9th better, but this ain't bad.

And I believe it is true that classical music came from folk music and dance - the composer took the simple tunes the 'folks' used and embellished on it.

And square dancing is an adaptation (or evolution) of older folk dances, so they are in a sense an embellishment also..... they just went in the opposite direction as the classical music composers.

Posted by: Susan at January 19, 2008 04:29 AM

In pop-culture - wasn't it used in some stupid sci-fi 60s movie with Sean Connery?

Zardoz. It was rubbish, but it did have a cool flying stone head.

And, yes, I'll take anything written by a dead white European male or his intellectual descendants over square dancing, any day of the week.

Posted by: Mike at January 19, 2008 08:24 AM

Could someone please tell me whether "Bush Was Right" turned ironic in the last 34 seconds? I couldn't watch until the end. Actually, I became queasy at "Democracy like a tidal wave," I think. That's a nice touch, isn't it?

Bernard - please be more careful in future. Also, did you mean "Stutts" in your post? I haven't heard of this "Yale" place.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at January 19, 2008 09:47 AM

I enjoyed that immensely, and your comments as well. I'll risk my own theory here, or, perhaps, my own understanding of what and why certain musical cadences compel us to listen and engage in a way that we enjoy.

Anticipation is certainly part of the equation. But only a part IMHO. (well, natch) The best music is full of contradictions, contrasts, unexpected turns and finally, moments when what is anticipated is delivered in full giving a sense of release or finality, resolution.

The contrast of minor to major is a familiar device to set up the unexpected. In this piece the move is mostly made mid-stride, zigging when the ear anticipated a zag. Tough to do and not sound just plain wrong. Or, in the case of more familiar uses of relative minors, the contrast is used to set-up delivery of a satisfying, reliable, security blanket.

The trick, of course, is to have the listener enjoy the ride. That's the genius of art at work. Mr B himself prolly couldn't tell you exactly why he chose what he chose. But he heard it, recognized it when he did, and knew how to use it effectively.

It is tension and release that gives any piece a sense of journey. (Thats why the holes are as important as the notes) Its the journey that is fulfilling, with notable spots of the itinerary providing the ear candy. That tension can be manipulated like a Hitchcock movie, a formula feel good Sunday flick, both and anywhere in between, all in the same piece. Composition is using these devices to create, recreate, and release tension, a musical storyline.

One doesn't need to become familiar with a piece of music to enjoy it, of course. The phrases and movements work the first time. It is true though, that a true masterpiece will survive familiarity and reward the listener for their efforts. In this way I'll use another comparison (so much about music and art cannot be adequately described, by me at least). Like the details of a great painting whose relevance dawns upon one slowly, so too music can provide deeper understanding over time. Indeed, this characteristic is largely responsible for why call an elite, small group of composers Masters and Geniuses. They understood their relationship to the listener so well that one can listen to the same lecture over and over, gleening more each and every time, and also enjoy the experience.

Contrast, conflict and resolution is life itself. We get it. If you don't like what you see, close your eyes. But music moves directly into psyche of the human condition.

Sometimes it even leads people to prattle on.

Posted by: ww at January 19, 2008 10:07 AM

alaya, susan: I agree much of classical music is built on folk music themes. In fact it's so common I was questioning the explanatory power of that line of inquiry.

aaron: never been able to watch bush was right to the end either. But why is it bushies always have to save the irony for the end.

re. yale, I didn't say Stutts to avoid ruffling feathers. So I picked up a made-up name.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 19, 2008 10:24 AM

ww: this is not meant to return the compliment, but only to thank you for your insightful comments.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 19, 2008 10:30 AM

I think it's sweet for you to dedicate so much time and thought (and blog space) to a piece of music. When someone tells me how much they love or even hate a piece of music, I always like to blurt out "Well, that's what it's there for." Nothing in the world (except for being in love) can inspire the depth of feeling that music can. But I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed that you chose to talk most about the technical side of the piece than instead of what the piece does to you emotionally. You can create in depth descriptions of compositional achievements and wonders about so many pieces of music. If you want to stay with Beethoven, you could just as easily focus the middle period piano sonatas (which are a whole world unto themselves), or "Eroica" or the incredible "economy of means" of the 5th. With Beethoven the compositional wonders never cease. Plus if you're looking to a historical figure to justify your Beethoven lust, look no further than Mahler. Mahler was able to turn his greatest music influence (you know who) into the foundations for a modern symphonic movement.

But honestly, who cares about those old dead birds? Who cares about compositional techniques? As a composer, once you're finished studying all that stuff, you're supposed to forget it anyway. What does this piece do to you? If you're telling me that this is "the greatest piece of music in the Western canon," ya better tell me why. Personally, I think "Wednesday Miles" off of “Live at Filmore” (tied with PE’s “It takes a Nation of Millions and Van Halen #1 – in their entirety) deserve that title, but I think I'd end up crashing Jon's site if I took the time to tell you why.

Posted by: Robert ToTeras at January 19, 2008 10:42 AM

Whenever I hear talk about classical music lifting riffs from folk dances, the word "sample" comes to mind.

Beethoven: hip hop from the early 19th Century.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at January 19, 2008 11:02 AM

This is simplistic, but I like the dur-möllness of it all. I also love the winds and the way the piece keeps layering the theme on top of itself—like you said—but that's what I think. It's also a very sweet little melody. The movement is much more subtle and sophisticated than the next two. The finale in particular was always too exuberant/frenetic for me.

Posted by: StO at January 19, 2008 11:13 AM

"Who cares about compositional techniques?" What a silly thing to say. Anyone who's ever tried to write a piece of music. Which doesn't just mean highbrow writers of formal concert-hall music; it also means anyone who's ever used their amateur chops to mess around with friends and improvise a solo in the middle of covering a pop song.

Music is for everyone, not just technicians. How it works isn't some esoteric thing no lay person could possibly be interested in; the basics are as easily mastered by motivated normal people as any other life skill. The stuff Bernard Chazelle was telling us about is about as complicated as using to use word-processing software. Sheesh.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at January 19, 2008 11:13 AM

Well made music is a combination of notes are phrases that can be predicted by the mind and notes and phrases which the mind does not predict and which delights the senses when heard. The hard listener's mind is constantly trying to guess what will happen next, if one is correct too often, he (she) will get bored and stop listening. Conversely, if the music is too unpredictable, the listener gives up trying to guess what will happen next and stop listening. This is not my theory, but has stuck with me for twenty odd years and I still find it intriguing.

Posted by: gumby at January 19, 2008 11:41 AM

Ludwig gets to me, too, but lately Mahler's 9th -- particularly the motif from the adante comodo first movement -- has been following me around. Or maybe it's the identical motif from Lou Reed's "Like a Possum".

Posted by: nasrudin at January 19, 2008 12:20 PM

Jonathan Schwarz: Beautiful story about your father. " The last of life for which the first was made." comes to mind.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 19, 2008 01:10 PM

Mike, I certainly agree it's beautiful (and sorrowful)...but I would be remiss if I didn't say it's not my story, but Milan Kundera's.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 19, 2008 01:33 PM

This piece.

This piece is beautiful. But that's nothing. Beethoven could do beautiful in his sleep. Let's get specific. This piece is an expression of the brevity and the sweetness of life. In a symphony devoted to dance rhythms, it's as close to sadness as he allows himself to get.

We live, then we die. From darkness to darkness, passing briefly into and out of the light. From minor to minor, passing briefly into and out of the major. Like the light from a window illuminating the space on either side, the major passages ease the sadness of the inevitable return to the minor, as the happinesses of life can ease the foreknowledge of inevitable death.

By the way, you missed one of the key points, in the "mopping up"; that final downbeat on the wrong note. How better to illustrate that death always comes too soon?

Personal view. YMMV and all that.

Posted by: Zander at January 19, 2008 01:35 PM

"sense of release or finality, resolution" - otherwise known as the climax.

It's not life that leads to death, it is sexual reproduction that leads to aging and death. If an organism reproduces asexually, they may never die. Of course, they are not a very complicated organism either.

All of that makes the biblical phrase "the wages of sin are death" an interesting twist.

Posted by: Susan at January 19, 2008 01:50 PM

Which will make the music of asexual organisms, when we find some, very interesting to listen to. :)

Posted by: Zander at January 19, 2008 01:59 PM

That's pretty awesome that Patrick Nielsen Hayden scolded me for saying something he deemed as "silly." But I must tell you that it sounds like you didn't fully read or understand my post. Now, I love to fight and all but you know, I think we might be making similar, populist, points.

Yes PNH, compositional techniques are very exciting, and I don't think discussions of them should be rarified and only between people "in the know." But I want to know what grabs Bernard emotionally about Beethoven, the other stuff is secondary at best. And if you don't believe me, ask a musician or composer you respect.

What people respond to when it comes to music has nothing to do with what Walter Piston, Carl Czerny or even Mel Bay (all the guitarists in the house say..."Ouch!") taught us. The technique gets us to where we want to go, but it's the emotion that gets us to pull our pants down.

Come on PNH, feel that emotion and take your pants down.

Posted by: Robert ToTeras - Again. at January 19, 2008 02:33 PM

Mr. Totera-potomas,

Still avoiding the letter "D" issue, I see.


Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 19, 2008 02:39 PM

I used this music for the soundtrack of my student film!

Posted by: Richard Brandt at January 19, 2008 02:43 PM

Of course Beethoven knew what he was doing. We're talking about someone who dissected Bach fugues -- someone who kept writing music after he lost his hearing. He wrote down snatches and fragments and tested them and made them do things and discarded perfectly good bits of music that didn't do what he wanted from them. Ask Lenny Bernstein about it. Dead or not, he'll give you an earful, and it'll be darn entertaining, too. (Check out his Norton Lectures from the library. Try and get the videos, and maybe read along in the book.)

I like the Andante from his 15th piano sonata, and Beethoven used to sit around making up variations on it. The whole sonata is wonderful stuff. Even if LVB didn't tag it "Pastorale," the resonances between it and the 6th symphony are neat.

Posted by: Kip W at January 19, 2008 04:47 PM

It is a great piece of music. Not the greatest ever composed, because that one is Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 132; but great enough.

What makes a piece of music great? What does it for me is the following: no matter how often you have heard it, each note comes as a surprise for you, every single time. And as soon as you hear that particular note, you realize it is not only the right one, but absolutely the only one that could have been put in that place.

Beethoven has it, Mozart and Bach have it, and the other great ones have it most of the time.And then there are the ones who are mere geniuses.

Posted by: José Luiz Sarmento at January 19, 2008 06:35 PM

God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols is still doing it for me.

Posted by: Urban Sombrero at January 19, 2008 08:28 PM

We mean it, maaaaaan!

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at January 19, 2008 09:47 PM

Looks like I suck at html. Here's the link to Kleiber on the Tube that is You:

Posted by: Miss Mussel at January 19, 2008 09:56 PM

One of my all-time favorites. I listened to it the day my grandfather died.

Posted by: wareq at January 19, 2008 11:30 PM

you guys have obviously never been to a hindustani or carnatic concert.


Posted by: almostinfamous at January 20, 2008 12:32 PM

The Sex Pistols never did a song called "God Save the Queen," and there's no future in saying they did. (Joke. Laugh now. Wait, I'll go put it in italics.)

Posted by: Kip W at January 20, 2008 01:26 PM

Have you heard the andante from Schubert's 9th symphony? It is strangely like this piece in some ways (also in A minor, though the symphony as a whole is in C major) but in other ways the Schubert is completely different. Schubert does not do the complex things with thematic motives that Beethoven does. On the other hand, Schubert's use of harmony is much more interesting and dramatic, and of course he could write tunes like nobody else.

Posted by: Cide Hamete Benengeli at January 20, 2008 02:56 PM

chamillionaire is better

Posted by: c at January 22, 2008 02:41 AM

first, we'd all have to agree what "the western canon" consists of.

personally, i think the first of bach's goldberg variations, barber's well-known adagio or part's cantus for benjamin britten should be contenders, but if we are in fact going to allow that jazz is a 20th century american classical music, then my vote is for lonely woman by ornette coleman. as i've stated elsewhere, the great works of art, music or otherwise, shorten the distance between form and emotion; and lonely woman brings that distance as near to absolute zero as i have ever heard.

Posted by: r@d@r at January 22, 2008 12:24 PM

I can agree with your analysis here, but I still have a warm spot for the last 5 minutes of Mahler's 2nd. Gets me every time...

Posted by: Garrett Fitzgerald at January 24, 2008 11:32 PM