What is the Greatest?

What is the greatest? When it comes to classical music, which composition should be considered the greatest? Would it be one that you would say is better than all the rest? How fine a line should we draw when we determine what is the greatest? Who’s symphony was the greatest? What concerto, classified by violin, piano or any other kind instrument? We could even draw finer lines and say perhaps we’ll only compare movements.

Some have said that Brahms 4th symphony slow movement is the greatest of that kind of genre, but what about the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto number 21?  Would one say that the greatest finale should be Beethoven’s Symphony number 5 with that fantastic ending which never seems to end — it continues on and on with even more uplifting notes to the point where you don’t want it to end, but it does.

What is the greatest symphonic poem? Could it be perhaps Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes? If you’ve never heard it please do. Strauss waltzes are perhaps the greatest, yet this all must be subjective according to our individual taste. Our tastes are temporal for we find that over time what we deem to be the greatest will likely change.

An individual might not like what the collective group picks in the aggregate to be the greatest, yet must we accept that there is some validity in that group think? When we view the outcome of the vote we see that those are typically amongst the greatest, and that probably influences our perception as well. When we view in a vacuum the choices, it may come out differently.

To me all of classical music is the greatest. I’ve grown to like it more and more. And even though I’m biased, I think that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Manfred Honeck is the greatest.

The other night I heard three compositions. I took detailed notes for the first composition by James MacMillan: Woman of the Apocalypse 

Since I’ve trained myself to be attuned to a new composition over the many years I’ve been coming to Heinz Hall, I was able to direct my attention to the details of the all the elements, the individual sections of the orchestra, that made up that new piece. Here I wrote my thoughts just as I recorded them, in raw form.

I did that because as I read through the thoughts, I can envision in my own mind those memories that were formed when I heard each part. I can recollect the vague yet concrete thoughts I had at the time, and I can almost re-hear some of the parts again. No matter how eloquent and how many words, it would be difficult to describe music to another. Yet if that other has also heard it before, then we could use the words as a baseline to remember and communicate the musical thoughts. And what about the greatest? It’s certainly the “greatest” piece I’ve ever heard by composer James MacMillan. It’s the “latest” new piece I’ve heard. I liked it. And don’t forget, as the saying goes: All music was once new.

The night was just beginning because I was looking forward to the Beethoven Romances as played by Noah Bendix-Balgley and the orchestra. I’ve got all these on CD and listen to them often. I wasn’t disappointed. Bendix-Balgley’s rendition was beautiful. The tones were so pure and sublime, I can listen to it anytime.

Finally the Brahm’s Symphony No. 4. What can I say, it’s the greatest, but not THE greatest, all the music was.

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