Here To Stay

I’ve been taking a short break from creative activities over the holiday, so my brain had been out of new music mode for the better part of a week when I was confronted at a family gathering with an unusual and remarkable opinion: One of my relatives, a member (for your information) of the Greatest Generation, was adamant that Beethoven’s music is superior to the Beatles’. Furthermore, she insisted that Ludwig Van’s tunes would be with us into perpetuity, whereas the Beatles were destined for the ashcan of history.

This is a strange view to espouse for a couple of reasons: Number one, the Beatles are about the most widely respected and little-belittled pop music act ever. I know several classical musicians whose rock diet is limited exclusively to the work of those Liverpudlian wonders. Number two, it’s much easier to hear recordings by the Beatles today by accident than it is to hear performances of Beethoven’s music on purpose. Between The Beatles: Rock Band and the long-awaited arrival of their catalogue on iTunes, the Fab Four’s exposure probably hasn’t been greater in decades.

I hardly need to cover my ass here and affirm that I think Beethoven’s music is wonderful. Nor, I hope, must I tell you that I also dig the Beatles. Most do. But if you asked me to make a quantitative comparison between the songs, recorded performances, studio innovations, films, and cultural impact of the Beatles on the one hand and the compositions and artistic legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven on the other, I would be hard-pressed to give you a straight answer. The good news is that there is no need to give a straight answer on who’s better, and in fact any straight answer you could supply would be reductive and uninformative.

Strictly speaking, I suppose, the question isn’t who’s better but whose music will have the greater longevity. But there’s a pretty serious asymmetry here too: Are we comparing how long people will keep reading Beethoven trios at wine/cheese parties to how long people will learn Beatles covers from their records and play them at open mic nights? Are we comparing how long people will keep going to performances of the pastoral symphony in huge concert halls to how long people will chill out to “Here Comes the Sun” via earbuds on the bus? Because those seem like some fairly meaningless comparisons.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here. I probably should have just agreed that Beethoven’s music is destined to be cherished for longer than the Beatles’, and although I did steer the conversation elsewhere, the issue has continued (as you can see) to nag me. Please chime in and tell me whether the mop-tops or the Master of Bonn will be with us for the duration of the 21st century and beyond.

8 thoughts on “Here To Stay

  1. Lisa X

    Whatever kind of human cultures that survive the next several hundred years will have to be very different from the cultures that have taken us this far. These future people will have had to develop radically new and improved values, making the kind of music that thrived during the apex of western empire (including Beethoven and the Beetles) totally incomprehensible.

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  2. Juan Calderon

    I’m particular to neither. The first thought that came to mind, though, it’s that the Beatles seem to be inherently associated with their physical persona (or the cult of their personality; their particular tone of voice, looks, sound, etc…), whereas Beethoven seems personality seems to be the music itself… Once the Beatles are all dead, it seems to be the end of it, at least in the realm of live performances… That’s just something that occurred to me on the spot. “Just a thought.”

    Juan

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  3. colin holter

    Once the Beatles are all dead, it seems to be the end of it, at least in the realm of live performances…

    I see your point, although I wonder if people felt the same way about Beethoven in the 1820s?

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  4. drasil

    I have a feeling that your gen-G family member was probably echoing sentiment that he or she espoused when the Beatles were popular and it was common for the parents of their target audience to make cross-genre comparisons because rock music was alien to them. (“Perry Como, now there’s some real talent.”)

    My generation, which is the same as Mr Holter’s, has enjoyed a notable relief from this kind of generation gap in terms of music, but I do think one is brewing: my dad and I both love Nirvana and Joanna Newsom, for example, but neither of us is particularly into Fall Out Boy.

    Also, as a side note in response to Mr Calderon–if your theory were true, then surely this past year there would not have been the highly successful independent film, two books, and two monuments erected in the memory of John Lennon, his ‘physical persona’ having been absent now for nearly thirty years.

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  5. pgblu

    But the main reason we can’t compare the two is because one act enjoys banality while the other enjoys triviality as strategies for irritating the bourgeoisie.

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  6. Juan Calderon

    To Colin: Good point. I just thought that the problem is that there are no recordings or footage of Beethoven to “set the standard.”

    Drasil: It seems that we would have to wait and see… I feel that the memory of Lennon is still fresh among the people of his generation that attended his performances or that at least can relate generationally (sp?) as you put it.

    Would you guys say that the future of Beatles legacy will be in the form of some kind of cocktail party muzak? Or constant re-orchestrations and tributes? Personally, I am not that much into what has been done so far, aside from a few versions of “Eleanor Rigby.”

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  7. Chris Becker

    Forget about reorchestrations – that’s missing the point entirely (although all four Beatles are seriously great songwriters/composers IMHO). The Beatles have and will continue to influence generations of recording artists seeking to bring their studio work to life. Albums like Revolver, the White Album, and Sgt. Pepper offer so many examples of techniques one can apply in recording music, there seems to be no danger of their influence (along with that of George Martin) being diminished.

    Over the holidays I bought and listened to the remastered White Album with headphones and it was almost shocking to hear how it was recorded, mixed, even edited. It’s lopsided, tons of bleed, noisy, experimental in the best sense of the word…

    I think there’s a lot for composers to discover in these tracks if they unplug from the iTunes standard for aural experience :) AND if they, instead of replicating what’s already been done, take infuse or tap into the spirit that exists in these recordings and produce for themselves something as uncompromising.

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  8. philmusic

    I think the difference between music that was created as holographs and music that was as created as recordings adds up to some interesting problems when you try to compare them.

    Especially when the case is one of the authenticity of the original performance and arrangements. In the case of recordings that can be a single performance.

    Of course in some cases folks prefer another singers copy to the original arrangement. On the other hand, holographic music was mostly created for others to perform.

    Anyway the question of the Beatles or any other singer/songwriter performing popular music V.S. Beethoven seems a little forced especially when you consider that classical/pop crossover is so popular now.

    In ten years who knows?

    Dr. Phil Fried Philfried.com

    Reply

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