Tuesday 15 July 2014

The Most Beautiful Piece of Music Ever Written

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 stunning work.

It would be worth a little effort on your part - well OK, maybe quite a lot of effort - to seek it out.