In Search Of The World’s Most Beautiful Tune
By Robert Walton
It might sound like an impossible task to find the world’s most beautiful tune but with so much current research going on in other walks of life, we may as well add “music” to the list and see what we come up with. The question is where do you begin such a mammoth undertaking? And what are your judgments based on?
I don’t quite know why I first thought of waltzes when faced with this huge assignment, but because they are tighter than the common or garden 4 in bar, the tune is more immediate. Waltzes are far more attractive and adaptable, and though perhaps more famous in a dance context, they frequently turn up in larger works like symphonies. Tchaikovsky came to my mind immediately with his gloriously natural Waltz of the Flowers, which oozes effortlessly out of its elegantly spontaneous-sounding origins. This is totally unlike the compositions of Johann Strauss II, which were written for special requirements on the dance floor but later immortalized for seated audiences in orchestral arrangements.
Musicians outside Bath’s Pump Room with their pre-recorded accompaniments play many of the greatest tunes. One, which is performed regularly, is the beautiful melody Meditation from Massenet’s Thais which surely must be fairly high up the “Immortal Tune” hit parade. Other melodies which move, are Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Saint-Saens’ The Swan. Of course you can’t produce a list like this without having a Puccini. One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly is a classic, which turned harmony upside down.
Vaughan Williams’ haunting Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis well deserves a place in such company. Imagine being in the congregation of Wells Cathedral hearing the hushed Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It’s strange but most well known composers don’t seem to produce hits. Williams’ The Lark Ascending was also a big favourite but it was the rhythmic section I first heard used as the theme for a documentary on the Pilgrim’s Way. Often it’s the orchestration that appeals. For instance Beethoven’s Ode to Joy leaves me cold compared with the end of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony featuring a choir which has to wait patiently for their big moment. Most music, which really moves, is from unlikely sources. As a toddler my mother used to play the opening of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude while I did a carpet crawl away from the sound of “thunder”. Rachmaninov’s gorgeous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is in a class of its own.
In popular music one of its most memorable melodies of the 20th century just has to be David Raksin’s Laura and Rose’s masterly middle section of Holiday for Strings.
On the swing front there’s one tune from the entire Ted Heath library which has been a constant bug bee in my bonnet - Dave Bee’s Obsession. Back in the 1940s the Melachrino Strings recorded a series of short classics often featuring the lower strings, the most outstanding of which was Benjamin Godard’s haunting Berceuse from “Jocelyn”.
And moving on to modern light orchestral music, I passionately believe Robert Farnon’s Melody Fair deserves a special place in the whole universe of music. Tony Bennett’s ex-manager Tony Tamburello, rated this two and a half minute miracle as immortal. I couldn’t agree more!
My current personal favourite is Hubert Parry’s spine-tingling Jerusalem (I can’t get enough of it!) Strange but I never heard Jerusalem until I was in my teens. What a pleasant shock! It was a world away from Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory although the beautiful Nimrod is full of hope.
But pop pickers, still at number one after all these years is Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) composed by an unknown Irish street musician.
What is the most beautiful tune ever written - ? - Isn't this somewhat like asking who was the greatest composer who ever lived?
Isn't it a matter of subjectivity to this whole issue and others like it? Don't each of us have different listening needs and listen for different things?
There are no absolutes of this sort in any form of art. What will please or even enthrall one, the next one may will be indifferent to, or even harbor an active dislike, for whatever reason.
Accordingly, the idea that such and such is widely considered to be - - by the musical intelligentsia; critics and other musical pundits, or by the listening public, often carried over from the former, perhaps in a desire to appear informed or erudite. And these trends are replicated in our music learning institutions, most regrettably.
As far as objective standards are concerned, (which I for one remain wary of) the most that can be said is that when a work of music is widely considered to be "great" or "popular," I believe that itvis actually that the work in question has a wide ability to reach a diverse variety of listeners, which still says nothing as to its inherent worth save in the ears of the listener.
A work that is considered to be an important historical landmark might well turn off or even revolt some people and another that may seem in its face outwardly derivative and on the beaten track could move a listener to the very roots.
The listener has to judge for him/herself what is personally most valuable. Only with a considerable degree of experience in listening is one in a position to express an informed opinion, and besides, to express it articulately. This sort of experience I refer to I cannot sufficiently urge for those who are truly interested in receiving and discussing music in a more intelligent and informed manner.
Who is the greatest composer who ever lived? My mood changes from day to day as to my preferences so I wouldn't even attempt to specify a desert island figure, let alone a melody. I do designate seven composers over all who are the most meaningful to me, but even there the lines are very fluid. And that applies to light music for me as well as serious. I have my own favorites in different areas, and these can change from day to day depending on my mood or state of mind. It is a reason why I for one become openly annoyed when Bob comes out and says that Robert Farnon was the greatest figure in light music and popular arrangements who ever lived - he was great in his own very individual way - I would never deny him recognition - but there were other figures in this genre who were equally great and their contributions should not be denied either, being that each had something of his own to contribute and all in some sense complemented each other.
I sincerely hope that I have cleared up various points that often tend to be misunderstood.
Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.