The question becomes, by what criteria do we determine what is objectively the “best” in the arts? I think that “communication” is a crucially important criterion, and I propose that a transcendent reflection of God, who is the divine source of objective truth, expressed in human creativity is indeed objectively, theologically “better” than mathematical integrity or symmetry alone.
I offer these comments in response to Joseph Pearce’s thoughtful essay, “Which Is Beethoven’s Best Work?” First, his comments about “objective best” vs. “subjective favorite” are well taken and can be applied to many creative genres today. I agree that it is with some rare delight when those two things can actually be found in the same object, as Mr. Pearce finds them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68 (“Pastoral”). Then the question becomes, by what criteria do we determine what is objectively the “best” in the arts? Strictly in terms of craft, and speaking as a university music professor who teaches the analysis of Beethoven’s scores, many scholars regard the pinnacle of Beethoven’s technical achievement to be his very late string quartets (and I see someone has already left a comment to that effect on Mr. Pearce’s essay, since the “Grosse Fugue” that the commenter proposes is part of that group of quartets). Those quartets, however, while on a par with Bach’s greatest counterpoint, are practically incomprehensible to most people as music for listening, including to me. Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote them, and I have often spoken of them to students as the work of either a genius or a madman, because I find them so hard to comprehend, myself. In the same way, but to an even greater degree, Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone, atonal works are crafted on some level of mathematical perfection, on paper, but are practically incomprehensible to most people for actual listening.
So, if the criterion of also communicating to the listener on some emotional level in actual sound is arguably crucial, and not only cold, structural skill “on paper,” then I agree with Mr. Pearce that the sixth symphony is unsurpassed as Beethoven’s most communicative large-scale composition, while not sacrificing greatness of craft of technical construction. (There are other contenders for me, if ties are allowed, like his delicious fourth piano concerto.) I think that Mr. Pearce does imply by his defense of the “Pastoral” symphony that communication is a crucially important criterion. It may be argued that Beethoven’s beloved “Moonlight” piano sonata is also communicative, but if the sixth symphony is a novel, the Moonlight sonata is a poem. The symphony wins overall by having both human communication and also a large-scale formal architecture all-too-seldom achieved in history, in the sheer “achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” to reiterate Mr. Pearce’s quote from Hopkins.
To put a finer point on it, and speaking of architecture by way of analogy, perhaps the most technically perfect architectural structure, in merely mathematical terms alone, is the so-called “Geodesic Dome,” with its perfect distribution of structural stress. And there is some beauty, perhaps, in its simple clarity of design. The “Spaceship Earth” building at Epcot Center is an example, like a giant golf ball on the landscape. R. Buckminster Fuller did not invent the geodesic dome but coined the term and popularized this structure, even using the design to build his own home. However, if aesthetic communication to the viewer is added as a criterion, then I would say that Filippo Brunelleschi’s brilliant design for the dome of the Florence Cathedral is a greater work of dome architecture, because the dome has far more varied and artistic features, that is, intricate aesthetic detail and emotionally satisfying communication while remaining, still today, the largest standing brick dome in the world. This is due to a most ingenious series of gravity defying features, equally impressive to those of the geodesic dome, which were centuries ahead of Brunelleschi’s time.
However, I think that “communicative” as a criterion for evaluating greatness, itself, requires further defense, lest it be deemed merely subjective, too—that is, as a subjective factor of how to determine objectivity. The Florence dome and the “Pastoral” symphony of Beethoven communicate because they reflect the image of God through God-given human imagination involving the whole human person, including innate or visceral emotional appeal. Through their combination of both emotionally perceived beauty and intellectually perceived technical truth, they project a higher quality, greater than the sum of those two factors, which is to say transcendence and not only immanence. I propose that such a transcendent reflection of God, who is the divine source of objective truth, expressed in human creativity is indeed objectively, theologically “better” than mathematical integrity or symmetry alone. The latter are marvelous qualities but are only components of the more holistic, greater work. In other words, I agree with Joseph Pearce.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The featured image is a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1803, painted by Christian Horneman, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.