A brief note on the three greatest composers in western music
I have written before that if one wishes to appreciate and understand something of the sweep, beauty, and depth of western music, there are three composers to whom one must especially attend: Johann Sebastian Bach; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Ludwig van Beethoven. Together, they span the years from 1685-1827, about one hundred and fifty years that witnessed such magnificent achievements in serious music. By selecting these three men, I do not wish to exclude others, and surely not such towering geniuses as Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, Richard Wagner, to mention a few. What I am suggesting is that if a person listens attentively to considerable amounts of music from the hands of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, s/he will not only be hearing some of the finest music ever composed, but with thought, be able to discern much that forms the living heart of modern western civilization. I maintain that more than any other art, music reveals the Spirit and the spirit of the one composing. If we date the high point of western civilization from roughly 1600 to 1900 or even extending into the late phase, into the twentieth century, then the three aforementioned composers indeed stand out, and form excellent guides into the mind, the spirit, the life of modern western civilization. And for those with ears to hear, these three composers also offer, at least at times, guides on the soul’s journey into God, however understood, and beyond all understanding.
Rather than list compositions by these three men which I would most recommend, I leave it to each reader to discover works on their own—or, if you wish, ask me for personal recommendations. I wish to make a few broad generalizations to give you some perspective on these masters of western music.
Each of these three composers excelled in virtually every field of composition for which they wrote, and composed major works in those areas of composition. Still, I think it just to say that each of these three men is best understood in one or two genres of music at which he not only excelled, but in which he seems most to be at home, most himself, most able to put into music that which he longs to say. This is a bold claim, but it is based on years of listening, study, and thinking about serious music, and these mens’ compositions.
Bach’s genius and unsurpassed achievement is most seen in two highly recurring patterns of phenomena: his exceptional compositional skill that allowed him to be foremost in numerous genres of music; and above all, Bach’s solid and unashamed faith and joy in Jesus Christ. During Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750), Christian faith was already bleaching out and fading from the center of western consciousness. Most of the leading thinkers (and far more popular composers) had already become more secular-minded, often with little interest in the things of God. (For example, Descartes, whom can be called the father of modern philosophy, had already died by 1650; here the preoccupation with self takes a giant leap forward.) Bach was in this regard more of a throw-back to early modern western composers, such as Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd, and Schütz (born in 1585, a century before J S Bach). I think that a major reason Bach’s Cantatas were not given their due in his lifetime, or even for many years after their composition and performance at Lutheran church services, was their explicit religious content. As noted, by the early 18th century, Bach’s time, leading minds of western culture and popular tastes had largely left Christian faith (whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Protestant) behind on what Hegel would call “the dust heap of history.” As Hegel wrote c 1803 in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, “God is dead,” replaced by human consciousness (and consciousness of self) as the decisive center of existence; and that was already clear for the reader of Descartes’ Meditations (1641), with its famous declaration: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. (Note the deliberate play on God’s self-revelation to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “I AM that I AM.”) Bach’s faith in the world-transcendent God—in the I AM incarnate in Jesus Christ—had experientially died and “decomposed” (as Nietzsche graphically phrased it) even as Bach composed such profoundly spiritual music pointing to, and embodying in sound, God and Christ.
The heart of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical output is clearly to be found in his enormous number of church Cantatas, of which about two-thirds are thought to be extant today. These roughly 200 compositions, when recorded, fill about 70-80 CD’s of music. In my opinion, if there are two enormous mountains of creative genius in the arts of our civilization, they would be the plays of Shakespeare and the Cantatas of J.S. Bach. This does not mean that Bach does not have many other masterful compositions, some of which excel individual Cantatas by a long distance: the St. Matthew and St. John Passions; the Mass in b minor; the orchestral suites, the Brandenburg concertos, the harpsichord and violin concertos; the Well-Tempered Clavier and so many other polished keyboard works; works for solo violin, cello, and other chamber compositions; and so on and on. It is in the Cantatas, however, taken as a collection, and experienced individually, with special attention to the finest compositions, that one sees in an overview and in detail the sweeping genius and the vibrant faith of J S Bach. Truly to hear some of these cantatas movements is to have one’s soul lifted up into the presence of God. Such is the power and art of Bach’s musical genius in expressing his solid faith.
The living center of Mozart’s output is, I deem, two-fold: it is in his 27 piano concertos, and in the more mature works among his roughly 20 dramatic compositions for stage—usually called “operas,” many of which are rarely performed now. Nearly all of the 27 piano concerti, and perhaps 7 or so of the operas, serve to give one appreciation for, and insight into, the musical mind of Mozart. Now, whereas Bach’s motives seem ever to be the communication of his faith and joy in Christ with as much technical skill as his highly developed German mastery permits, Mozart’s goal is different. Of every serious composer I have ever heard, I would maintain that Mozart has the most acutely developed sense of the beautiful in music; his aesthetic sense is acute, and highly developed, and it clearly guides his compositions. Mozart is not primarily interested in communicating faith in God in sound; rather, Mozart reveals the beautiful, or Beauty itself, which he may well have interpreted as the divine, but we leave that for a fuller study of Mozart. Listen to the slow, inner movements of Mozart’s piano concertos, and one is often brought to tears, or nearly so, by the sheer, simple beauty of his melodies, and the exquisite, tender manner in which he presents and develops their beauty. He requires musicians with a delicate touch, and who have a cultivated sense of the beautiful; Bach requires in his instrumental works performers with highly developed technical skills.
Beethoven would have been a young man of twenty when the Mozart died. His music, and that of the great Joseph Haydn, formed and directed Beethoven’s early compositions. But Beethoven was no mere interpreter or imitator of anyone. He was a genius of the highest order in music, and his genius was not primarily or essentially lived out in faith or in a highly developed sense of the beautiful. Rather, Beethoven is the foremost genius (in my opinion) of self-expression in sound. In whatever he composed, Beethoven was revealing himself—not the divine, not Christ, not the Beautiful, but Beethoven himself. His compositions could be called the first and foremost example of egophany (self-revelation) in musical history. I classify his word as egophanic, not to be critical, but to be analytical, and to do justice to Beethoven, for whose compositional skills and achievements I have utmost respect. As befits his goal of self-expression, there are two genres that seem most typical and the best way to hear and to appreciate Beethoven: the 32 piano sonatas, which fairly span his entire period of composition, and his 9 symphonies, composed roughly from age thirty into his early fifties (about three years before his death in 1827). In general terms, Beethoven worked out his feelings and thoughts in the piano sonatas, and then could make them more public, and on a grander scale, in his symphonies. As I recall, unlike Bach or Mozart, Beethoven usually drafted his orchestral compositions at the keyboard, the instrument at which he clearly felt most at home—where he could be himself, express himself, work out his feelings and thoughts in sound.
There is one additional body of works from Beethoven that I must mention. If most of his music is primarily personal self-expression—well documented in the piano sonatas and symphonies—I find a profound degree of self-transcendence in his last and highly important set of string quartets. Composed in the last 2-3 years of his life, and in a period in which Beethoven suffered much from serious health problems, these quartets still express the mind and heart of Beethoven; but they also lead the attentive listener out of Beethoven, out of oneself as listener, into a realm beyond time and space, into eternal peace and beauty, to a degree rarely achieved in western music. Here Beethoven transcends and to an extent fulfills the promise of Beethoven, and does so with unexcelled compositional skill. Sensitive souls who actively enter into these last compositions by the great Beethoven rarely cease to praise their magnificent achievement. It is in the slow movements, especially, that I most hear the heart and mind of Beethoven in meditation—Beethoven alone with the Alone, or with his attentively listening friends, moving into the unknown depths of God.
Wm. Paul McKane
18 November 2019
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