Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven are without doubt two of the most sublime musical geniuses who ever lived. But which of the two was the greater? To battle it out, Intelligence Squared brought to the stage two celebrated figures from the world of music: world-renowned cellist Steven Isserlis for Bach and acclaimed music critic Norman Lebrecht for Beethoven.
To lovers of Bach, he is the godfather of music. His use of counterpoint – the intertwining of two or more melodic lines – gives his compositions a layered, intricate quality. Although much of his music is religious it encompasses every great human emotion: despair and grief – perhaps informed by the death of his wife and ten of his twenty children in infancy – as well as love and hope. He produced over a thousand compositions, including the famous cello suites and the Matthew Passion. His music influenced not just every classical composer who came after him, but also most of the musical genres of the 20th century, including jazz, tango, soul and hip hop. Nina Simone said: ‘Bach made me dedicate my life to music’; the Beatles referenced him in songs such as ‘Yesterday’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’; and Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ starts and ends with the Fugue in B minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
But for those who love raw emotion, drama and awe, it has to be Beethoven. While Bach brought together and perfected all the musical traditions of his day, Beethoven was the revolutionary who broke the rules, constantly creating something new. Beethoven saw himself as an artist apart from other men. ‘There are and there will be thousands of princes,’ he once said. ‘There is only one Beethoven.’ He devoted his entire life to his art, living in squalor, never marrying, and progressively unable to hear his own music after he started to go deaf at the age of 28. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, his Fifth Symphony or the Emperor Concerto. And Beethoven’s creative influence was immense: without him there could have been no Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the modernists.
To help you decide who should be hailed as the greater composer, Isserlis and Lebrecht illustrated their arguments with live cello and piano performance.