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Who Was Greater: Hendrix or Beethoven?
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
(more articles from this author)
2003-01-23
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Who Was Greater: Hendrix or Beethoven? Do you find that question ridiculous? Ah...but why is it ridiculous? Is it because you think that Beethoven is greater? Are you perhaps a trained classical musician, or someone well versed in music history? From your vantage point, the answer may seem obvious indeed.

But what if you are a rock musician, or a serious guitar devotee? Perhaps you have listened to every famous rock guitarist from the '50's until today. Perhaps you have mastered many styles but found Hendrix impossible to imitate. You may be aware of how Hendrix's influence has touched almost every guitarist who came after him. To you, Beethoven may seem ancient and irrelevant. Thus you may feel that Hendrix is greater.

Or are you one who feels it is impossible to compare the two? Whatever your point of view, at least you can see that this seemingly silly question can actually be the spark for a rather thought provoking discussion. It also opens one up to thinking about just where music is today, and where it's going. I think it is useful to compare Hendrix and Beethoven because they were both outstanding musicians in their times. Both seem to embody the spirit of their ages. And they each had a profound influence on many musicians who followed.

A good place to start comparing the two is on the objective issue of how much mastery each had over various aspects of music. Hendrix was clearly a great electric guitarist, some would say the greatest. He had a certain sensual energy and intense emotional power in his performances that no other instrumentalist could replicate. In addition to playing the guitar, he was a composer of songs and occasional longer pieces. He was also an excellent improviser, combining elements of rock and the blues and sound textures that he created with his guitar using feedback and other techniques. He surprised listeners with his imitations of the sounds of sirens, guns, bombs, etc. A veteran of the army, Hendrix somehow was able to recreate the sounds and the feelings of modern warfare in his music. His powerful compositions helped fuel the American anti-war movement, along with the compositions of other rock groups from his era.

Beethoven was a great pianist. Like Hendrix, he pushed the boundaries of his instrument further than they had ever gone before. He had an emotional power in his playing that had never been known before. Beethoven also played the viola, and had an intimate familiarity with every other concert instrument of his day. We know this because he wrote brilliantly for virtually every instrument in the orchestra. Not only did he use all of them in his symphonies, but he wrote sonatas and concertos for many instruments. He also wrote the most complex and meaningful string quartets ever written, and wrote much vocal music including masses, an opera, and many songs for voice and piano. He was known as a great improviser and could create intricate pieces instantly with melodies offered to him by onlookers.

Hendrix's compositions, in general, were not particularly innovative. He typically wrote rock songs that were variations on the basic blues formula used in many other rock songs. He recorded a few extended compositions that were based on stream of consciousness jams, which, while unique in sound and of the highest quality, were not unlike jams of other groups at that time, such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Starship. It is primarily as a guitarist that Hendrix is revered.

Beethoven made several significant innovations in composition. He inherited the symphony from Haydn, but made a number of changes. One of the most obvious was his replacement of the minuet movement of the symphony with his invention, the scherzo. The minuet was a courtly dance in 3/4 time, while the scherzo (which means joke) was a fast and wild movement fused with a rough humor never dared by his contemporaries. Beethoven also extended the length of the movements in the symphony and added an emotional level that was never tapped before. Whereas Mozart and Haydn were always aware of pleasing their royal patrons (i.e.. not getting "overly emotional" in their music), Beethoven expressed himself with abandon. Another innovation was his use of the trombones, which made their dramatic debut in the symphonic literature in the last movement of his 5th Symphony. In that symphony, he also added a second coda to the first movement, which had never been done before by anyone in any piece of music.

Beethoven changed the order of the movements when it suited the music, moving the scherzo to the second spot in his 9th Symphony. Also in that symphony, he added a chorus to the last movement, a great new innovation not seen again until the late romantic era. Beethoven's 9th was at least double the length of the symphonies of his contemporaries, starting the trend toward bigger and longer symphonies that lasted 100 years.

His innovations didn't stop with his symphonies. Many of his pieces, such as his concertos, were much longer and much deeper emotionally than any that had come before. In his late String Quartet in C# minor, he expanded the four movement quartet form into a seven movement form. He also used dissonance in a way that was never done before, leading some critics to think he had gone insane. Beethoven's late quartets still stand, over 200 years later, as the greatest music ever written for that idiom. One reason they are considered so great is the connections in rhythm, melody and meaning, among all the movements. In fact, Beethoven moved classical music to a new level by writing multi-movement pieces in which the whole piece was one consistent statement. Whether we look at his symphonies, operas, quintets, quartets, trios, duets, sonatas or solo works, Beethoven wrote for every combination of instruments in ways that were revolutionary in their time, and remain full of energy and vitality to this day.

What about influence? Hendrix influenced many of the rock guitarists who were playing when he was alive, and he continues to influence young rock guitarists. His influence has extended to other instruments too, even to the cello (for which I take much credit). Many of his songs are still covered in venues across the country, and continue to be heard on radio and television.

Beethoven is credited with starting the Romantic Period in music. You can hear a distinct change in the sound of classical music before and after him. Among the composers who were influenced by him were Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, Mendelshonn, Liszt, Dvorak, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, and Brahms. In fact, Beethoven's influence can be strongly felt in virtually every composer of note that followed him for the next hundred years, until the innovations of Debussy. Indeed, the whole romantic era can be looked upon as a commentary on the musical ideas and concepts of Beethoven.

Beethoven was the trailblazer of the concept of the musician/artist. Before him, there were musicians who were great artists, but they were looked upon by society as the servants of their powerful benefactors (usually royalty or clergy). Even the great J.S. Bach used to sign letters to his patrons, "Your Humble Servant." Beethoven lived during the revolutionary times known as "The Enlightenment." He became a leader in the struggle for equality. He risked his freedom, and even his life, by talking back to, and even insulting, royalty who did not show him the respect he felt he deserved. For instance, he was known to make outbursts during his concerts if people talked while he played, no matter what their station. There is also the famous story about the time he was walking down the street with Goethe, the great author. Goethe saw some royalty approaching, so he stepped off the sidewalk to let them pass, as was the custom. Beethoven refused to step aside. Amazed at his daring, Goethe questioned his actions. Beethoven said that there were many princes in the world but only one Beethoven and therefore, they should step aside for him! Only a man of great talent and inner strength could get away with that. It is known that he dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon, whom he saw as a great liberator. Yet, when Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven ripped the dedication off the score and trampled it! Such were the actions of a musician who remains a legend to this day.

Jimi Hendrix was indeed a trail blazer in his own right. He created sounds from his electric guitar that had never been dreamed of before. He also used amplifier feedback to create colors that were unknown. Hendrix sonically turned his guitar into a whole battlefield. He made music of an intensity never heard before. His anti-war music in particular, was extremely powerful. His persona was that of someone unafraid to break down barriers, musical and social. He spoke of a world of tolerance and acceptance.

Yet, without Beethoven there would have been no Hendrix. Beethoven was, in a sense, the first "rock star." He was the first musician to stand up to authority and say that talent makes one more important than money or title. He was the first to stand up and say that an artist has the right, if not the duty, to express his own unique vision. He was the first musician to use his popularity to make critical comments about the inequities of society and to stand up to power. He started the trend of the great musical rebel, a trend that was later picked up by Elvis, Lennon, and Hendrix.

As one can see, when you do a detailed comparison between these two great musicians, the differences speak for themselves. But Hendrix fans shouldn't feel bad: even musicians as great as Brahms and Wagner made comments about how much greater they thought Beethoven was than themselves. Beethoven was a phenomenon, and by definition, a phenomenon is something that only happens once, or at least once in a very great while. There are phenomenons in other fields. Who can match Da Vinci, not only as an artist, but as a scientist, naturalist, militarist, and all around "renaissance man"? Who can match Michelangelo as a sculptor, or Shakespeare as a playwright? Who can match Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha as religious leaders? We must realize that there is not always going to be a person in each generation of the talent or influence of certain others from the past. It is unlikely that we will ever see another Shakespeare or Moses. It is also unlikely that we will see another Beethoven.

Hendrix was a great musician, but was he greater than Miles Davis? Was he greater than Coltrane, Parker, or Armstrong? Can we even say that he was greater than Frank Sinatra? After all, Sinatra was the most influential singer of his generation. Miles Davis revolutionized the trumpet, and Parker and Coltrane the sax. They influenced most of those who followed on their instruments. I would say that Hendrix fits in somewhere in this category; that of the great and influential instrumentalist. He may even be comparable to some famous classical musicians who are best known for performing on, and composing for, one instrument, like Chopin, Paganinni, or Liszt. Yet even they are not thought of as being in the same category as Beethoven.

In writing this article, my goal is not to raise one genre of music over another. To me, music is music. My desire is to use objective criteria through which all musicians can be compared, so we can create some kind of standard by which to separate the truly great musicians from the not as great, and the not great. The reason I like this idea is not because I want to inject competition into music, but because I believe that talent should be recognized and rewarded and great talent should be rewarded greatly. That just seems fair. Unfortunately, too often fame and fortune go not to the greatest artists but to those with the most shocking gimmick, the greatest sex appeal, or the strongest publicity machine. Hendrix and Beethoven were exceptions, but throughout history many great musicians were not rewarded or barely rewarded, while lesser talents received great fame and fortune.

Without standards there is no equity. In the field of professional sports, for example, only the greatest athletes get to the top. In baseball, the one who hits the most home runs, or throws the most strike outs, is the one who gets the most money, and ends up in the Hall of Fame. You can't get there if you are an average player or a below average player. Yet in music today, the greatest fame and the most money do not go to the greatest players or composers, but go to musicians who are average or even below average in their musical abilities. Ironically, many of the big "musical" stars of today, know very little about music.

If you think about it objectively, you will see that there are no musicians in popular music today that can come anywhere near Beethoven, in terms of his wide ranging knowledge and ability in all kinds of areas of music. For instance, how many rock stars could compose a symphony, let alone a symphony of the size and complexity of Beethoven's 9th? Most rock stars, if they compose at all, just write songs, others only play their instruments, some sing and dance, others just rap (talk to a beat). Even among those musicians who could potentially compose a symphony, such as modern day classical composers, we don't hear music of the power and influence of Beethoven. Why?

A couple of hundred years ago people didn't have radios, televisions, and computers. Entertainment could only be created live by actual human beings. In that environment, a music composer was a very valuable person in society. The greatest composers would get hired by the richest, most powerful nobles and would often live with them in the court, or at least become staples of their social scenes. Becoming a great composer was one of the few ways for a peasant or middle class person to rise out of his circumstances and sit at the table, or at least in the room, with kings. It was one of the few roads to fame and fortune available at that time to "commoners." Therefore, many parents pushed their kids to practice and study music intensely. Beethoven's father, for instance, would wake young Ludwig up in the middle of the night and make him practice for hours on end.

Today, most parents enjoy seeing their children play an instrument, but it is all but unheard of to push a child intensely to master musical composition. More commonly, kids will be pushed into science, business or math, as those are the fields that are more likely to lead to big money. Furthermore, if someone were a genius today, why would he go into music and try to compete with the likes of Beethoven and Bach? How many people are interested in hearing modern classical music anyway? There is much more opportunity in science, with computers, genetic research, space exploration, military technology, alternative energy, etc. The Beethoven's of today are the Einstein's and the Bill Gates'. They are also the Bill Clinton's and the Ronald Reagan's. When one can become the leader of the strongest nation on earth, or a multi-billionaire, why settle for scratching out a living writing music? That is not to say that there aren't still brilliant people writing and performing music today, but people on the level of a Beethoven are people who stand out as the most famous and important people of their age. Even if a genius like Beethoven wanted to create art, he would more likely become a movie producer, as they make much more money, have more prestige and create art that reaches many more people. Beethoven was not involved in a peripheral art form, he was involved in the most sought after, cutting age art project of his day. Music wasn't in the background, music was the show! If someone of his caliber were alive today he would be on the cutting edge of society in a position of great fame, fortune and influence. Two hundred and fifty years ago, that place was composing music, it no longer is today.

I think we must come to terms with the reality that the era of the great composers is over (at least for now). Mankind has hit the heights and depths that music can reach. Now humanity is attempting to hit the heights and depths of other fields of endeavor. Yes, there will always be great musicians, but just as we no longer have a Shakespeare writing plays, or a Da Vinci doing portraits, we no longer have a Beethoven writing symphonies. We should rejoice that there ever was a Beethoven, and while there will always be a need for new music, we should never forget the roots of western music and should give credit to whom it is due. The fact of Beethoven's towering influence does not make Hendrix any less exciting, less vital or less influential. Hendrix had a raw energy and a power that can never be diminished. Every talented musician has his own unique greatness. Nevertheless, no matter how strong our emotional bond may be with any particular artist, we must be aware of the larger picture and not let emotions blind us. We can still appreciate new music and create new music, while acknowledging that there once was a giant stamping his feet in the primordial jungle of western music!


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