They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is beautiful to one person, may not be beautiful to another. However, a significant element of that is cultural. The things we have grown up being told are beautiful are usually the things we hold to be beautiful for the rest of our lives. But those standards evolve over time and place. The ideal classical female figure is apparently somewhat chunky to the modern sensibility, just as today’s anorexic teenaged supermodels would appear emaciated to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Ancient Greeks (although maybe not to Botticelli, whose aesthetic appears to have been somewhat more ‘modern’ with his tall, willowy, long-limbed blondes).
Faces are somewhat different. There is plenty of evidence that the most
attractive facial features have remained more or less constant over the
ages, with many common traits that can be discerned across both ethnic
and cultural boundaries. Symmetry, for example, is a notable common
factor. Men and women around the globe tend to find symmetric facial
features to be superficially more attractive in the opposite sex.
What about music? Can music be said to be fundamentally beautiful?
For sure, there is some music which is very clearly the opposite of
beautiful, and people from different cultures can be found to agree on
that. After all, there is no requirement for music to be beautiful in
order to be good. Music tends to benefit greatly from the creation and
resolution of tension, dissonance, and rhythmic discord. But some music
is undeniably beautiful, like Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. Who would
disagree with that? How about the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th
symphony. Is that beautiful? How about NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”?
The fact that you can discern meaning and feel a powerful connection
with a piece of music is not the same thing as finding it beautiful.
What is it about music that makes it beautiful to our ears? Three
things tend to stand out. The first is that beauty pretty much always
requires a major key. The sort of beauty that makes you smile is
inevitably in a major key. The second is that beautiful music tends to
have slow tempi and simple rhythmic structures. This is wonderfully
expressed by the title of a great Alison Moyet song “I Go Weak In The
Presence Of Beauty”. That’s what beauty does. It doesn’t enervate you.
It makes you go weak at the knees. The third attribute is that
beautiful melodies tend to have arching spans. Most well-known tunes
follow a path of adjacent notes up and down the musical scale. The
theme from Beethoven’s Ode To Joy that I mentioned earlier follows this
path. It may be stirring music, but it is not particularly beautiful.
Beautiful music tends to have themes which feature prominent jumps from
one note to another some distance away. These jumps - usually jumps up
in pitch rather than down - are usually themselves the focal points of
the music’s inherent beauty.
There is one piece of music that
to my ears epitomizes beauty in music. I first heard it in 1972 when
the choir I was in performed a version of it. I think no less of it
today than I did then. It is one of my “desert island” pieces. It is, I
humbly assert, the most beautiful piece of music ever written. I think
it would be terribly sad to go through life without ever hearing it.
“Serenade To Music” was written by the English Composer Ralph Vaughan
Williams in 1938. It is scored for an orchestra, solo violin, and 16
vocal soloists, and is a setting of an extract from Shakespeare’s “The
Merchant Of Venice”. The solo vocal parts were specifically written for
16 prominent English singers of the day including Isobel Bailie and
Heddle Nash, and each part is annotated by the composer with the
initials of the designated singer. A recording exists, made shortly
after the work’s premiere, by the same performers. It is more of
musical and historical than audiophile significance, but captures a
wonderful vignette of the ethereal beauty that was soprano Dame Isobel
Baillie in her prime. Sergei Rachmaninoff, himself no stranger to
musical beauty, attended the premiere (having performed his 2nd Piano
Concerto in the first half of the concert) and was said to have broken
down in tears at the beauty of the music.
There are precious
few recordings of Serenade To Music, and I can’t think why. It is a
bucket list composition. The best is Sir Adrian Boult’s 1969 recording
with the London Philharmonic on EMI’s HMV label. This is a terrific
performance (Boult was an absolute master of Vaughan Williams) marred
only by Shirley Minty’s dreadful - and thankfully brief - contribution
which literally makes me cringe for a second until she’s finished. I
have this on LP only and I don’t know if it is available anywhere for
download. The world still awaits a modern digital recording of this
It would be worth a little effort on your part - well OK, maybe quite a lot of effort - to seek it out.