Friday, September 3, 2010

9/3 Who is Today's Beethoven?

Credit: Illustration: Line Halsnes/NTNU Info
Who could be considered our modern day version of Beethoven? I'm speaking musically, not so much his life circumstances.  To answer that maybe we can make some important statements about Beethoven's music in his own time:

  1. He achieved fame and popularity in his own time, both as a performer and and a composer, tho his popularity waxed and waned dramatically.
  2. His music influenced composers for the next hundred years, both in imitation and in opposite reaction.
  3. He wrote for the home amateur, the concert hall, religious functions and stage plays.
  4. His work has never lost its value and it's heard everywhere, even after 200 years.
  5. He made use of current technology and adapted his compositional style to the evolving pianoforte and the orchestra. In fact he was one of the first to use a metronome.
  6. He expanded and stretched the rules of composition and his inventions were considered overly-bold, especially in his early career.  Actually his late career was considered avant-garde even a hundred years later.

Based on No 1, we can exclude pretty much any strictly classical composer today, except possibly Philip Glass. Glass actually fits alot of the requirements, except that I seriously doubt his music will still be played in 200 years (tho its influence might still be felt). If we stick with orchestral music, we can then leap to film music composers. The most popular film composers of the last 50 years are John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann.  Williams is out because his work is more derivative of the past than looking to the future. Goldsmith and Herrmann are both revolutionaries musically, but their names have never really been well-known outside of film music fans.

Since classical music in Beethoven's time was not "classical music", but just "music", we can include jazz, rock and pop musicians. In jazz, I submit Coltrane, Miles and Bird. Unfortunately jazz is more about improvisation than composition, so that feels wrong right off. Also they composed almost exclusively for live club performances. In pop, there's Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Lennon, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder...  Maybe this is from personal taste but I doubt any of their music will survive 100 years, let alone 200. Except John Lennon. Actually Lennon has a pretty good chance, despite his not having written any concert, film or religious music.

Finally we have rock and so-called 'alternative rock'. I nominate 3 people:

Jimi Hendrix - Jimi fits the bill except, again, lack of concert and stage music. If not for his ridiculously early death, I'm almost positive he would have expanded into those areas.  Alas we'll never know.

Jimmy Page - Page is a very strong contender, and not only that, he's not dead yet.  He's written for film and probably written for a black mass or two.  The only problem is that he only wrote about 8 good albums and they were from 30 years ago. Jimmy needs to get a 9th Symphony going.

Trent Reznor - This is a left-field choice but in the end I think he has a chance of being regarded 200 years from now like Beethoven is now.
Fame and popularity?  Check.
Influential?  Drum and bass and half of all current film music.
Current technology? I think he's actually made technology-based music cool again.
Revolutionary and unpredictable? Yes, no doubt. He has also written for film, videogames and stadium. Frankly I doubt he'll be writing religious music but some of his pieces have a strong religious subtext (sort of?). Also he's not dead yet, and far from being washed up (sorry Jimmy).
Will his music still be alive 200 years from now?  That's the only weak point for ol' Trent.  For reasons beyond the scope of this post, technology-based music from the current century dates very quickly.

I guess in the final analysis today's Beethoven is...well, Beethoven.


  1. You might also should consider Frank Zappa in your analysis. He would have been a way better suggestion than Trent Reznor.

  2. Yes sir Mr. Zappa would definitely fit the bill. Orchestral, jazz, rock ensembles. Very original and creative.

  3. I disagree about technology-based music dating quickly. I've been calling Reznor a modern day Beethoven for over a decade. Only time will tell.

  4. Given that there truly will NEVER be another LvB, you pick Trent, hmm.....Using your tick-list I would easily go with John McLaughlin. His only ding is he is not really known much outside of people in the know, and as such cannot be considered popular.

    The Zappa choice is still better that Trent.

  5. Steve Via is a very valid choice. Has composed Orchestral music and been a world renown performer. Also made music that is meant for small "clubs" and music that is meant for big stage performance.

    I'm surprised you didn't mention his name as he is a massive influence on not just guitar, but rock itself.

    Jason Becker (although we will never know his true greatness due to ALS) has composed several orchestral pieces as well. Not to mention being a monster in his own right. However he does not have the fame/influence of Vai.

  6. Arvo Pärt! (in my opinion).