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.