Owing to the manifest difficulty of procuring objectively verifiable evidence one way or the other and the resultant unfalsifiability of individual claims, a measure of futility invariably attaches to disputes rooted in matters of personal taste.
If you were to insist that Hershey’s kisses are the most delicious candy on the market, I’d have a hard time “proving” to you that Hershey’s kisses pale in comparison to, say, Reese’s cups or Bounty bars. I know they do. I just can’t prove it. Truth, after all, is neither determined by a show of hands nor by unilateral profession of no matter how sincerely held a belief. And in some areas, such as sweetmeats or the arts, universal truths rendering alternative points of view inferior by definition may not exist in the first place—or do they? Who knows.
Although, as conventional wisdom would have it, de gustibus non est disputandum, we are still free to scratch our calvaria over other people’s verdicts in the personal taste arena, being fully mindful of our impotence when it comes to refuting those assessments on purely rational let alone scientific grounds.
Because I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that someone at some point had the seemingly out-in-left-field idea of turning what is essentially an 1800-page social and political commentary on early 19th-century France, dressed up as a novel with a fictional cast of characters and a plot, into a musical and by the mammoth follow-up task of rustling up a full score and libretto based on this type of source material—and also because my having just recently watched a stellar concert version of the show happened to coincide with my stumbling across a copy of the novel I had purchased many years ago but never ventured to actually open on account of its redoubtable page count—I finally resolved to sample at least a few opening chapters of Victor Hugo’s magnum opus Les Misérables … and then I couldn’t put it down, polishing the whole thing off in a little over a week. (Yes, all 530,000 and some odd words of it, plus the translator’s introduction.)
Besides a handful of little stanzas delivered by the precociously eloquent urchin Gavroche as he roams the streets of Paris—none of which, as far as I can tell, ended up in the musical—the novel itself contains few references to music, among which the following caught my attention:
Cosette spent the evening alone in the salon, and to relieve the monotony she sat down at her piano-organ and played and sang the chorus, ‘Huntsmen astray in the woods!’ from Weber’s opera Euryanthe, which is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever composed.
Needless to say, I—like probably most readers who have ever made it this far into the book—became intensely curious as to what “the most beautiful piece of music ever composed” might sound like. To the best of my research, the piece in question must be the “hunter’s chorus” (“Jägerchor”) from Euryanthe by Carl Maria von Weber:
Since this piece of music is expressly mentioned in the novel as being performed by one of the main characters, I wonder why the creators of Les Misérables, the musical, failed to incorporate a scene of Cosette launching into the Jägerchor from Euryanthe—did whoever holds the rights to Weber’s ouvre withhold permission to use this chorus in the show?
Notwithstanding that this particular tune seems a stunningly ill-fitting choice for the character of Cosette, this budding flower in the process of traversing the threshold to womanhood, for the purpose of allaying the ennui of her lonesome evenings spent longing for Marius—assuming the girl indeed had a predilection for Germanic composers, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or some Lied from one of Schubert’s song cycles would have been infinitely more credible selections—with all due respect to Mssrs Hugo and Weber, the Jägerchor from Eyranthe is not the “most beautiful piece of music ever composed,” nor was it back in Victor Hugo’s day and age. (In fairness, Mr Weber never made this claim, neither cushioned by a prepended “perhaps” nor otherwise.)
What distresses me greatly is that I can’t prove that it isn’t. All I know for sure is that it just isn’t. I shall go so far as to propose that every single composition from Les Misérables, the musical (which Mr Hugo, for obvious reasons, had never had a chance to hear, although given his peculiar pick for most beautiful composition ever, it seems clear that he wouldn’t have liked it much), is much more beautiful that the Jägerchor from Euryanthe.
Granted, being more of a rock’n'roll kind of guy, classical music in general fails to float my boat, so my heart may well reside in the wrong place for me to pass judgment on compositions of this type. Still, having made allowances for my lack of qualification, this Jägerchor sets my teeth on edge in a way that I’m feeling fairly confident in my assessment, objectively speaking.
In defense of Victor Hugo, when he finished Les Misérables in 1862, quite a lot of very beautiful music we know and take for granted today hadn’t been written yet. There weren’t yet any Puccini arias, Debussy sonatas, Strauss waltzes, Gershwin tunes, or Queen songs à la “Bohemian Rhapsody” that Mr Hugo could have anointed with the chrism of “most beautiful piece of music ever composed.” So from our modern perspective, his musical smorgasbord was limited.
That said, by the 1860s, musical giants like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach had already been pushing daisies for quite a while—in fact, Victor Hugo is reported to have been friends with Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, the latter of whom supposedly “played Beethoven in Hugo’s home”—so why on earth Mr Hugo would have picked the (frankly pretty annoying) Jägerchor from Euranthe as the “most beautiful” of all then-extant compositions over, for instance, the aforementioned Moonlight Sonata (below my favorite scence from “Immortal Beloved” with Gary Oldman as the venerable composer on the verge of losing his wits) boggles the mind, and presumable not only my own:
I hereby pronounce Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to be an infinitely stronger contender for “most beautiful piece of music ever composed” than is Euryanthe’s dopey little Jägerchor.
Victor Hugo was wrong. He should have known better.
Question: In your objective opinion, what is the most beautiful piece of music ever composed?