The Most Beautiful Melody in the World: Is it by Bach? Gershwin? The Beatles?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 30 2013 12:10 PM

The Most Beautiful Melody in the World

You know it when you hear it.

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Franz Schubert was one of the most spectacular born melodists. He wrote more than 600 songs, and any number of them testify to his singular gift. “Tränenregen” (“Rain of Tears”) is part of his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, (The Beautiful Miller's Daughter). Schubert virtually created the style of German art song for the rest of the Romantic century, based on a sophisticated transmutation of folk music. Notice the highly Schubertian turn to a minor key at the end: That's where the tears start, and the tragic denouement of the story is foreshadowed.

Not all beautiful tunes are sad, though a disproportionate number are, thanks to a universal human quirk: Sadness is more interesting than happiness, and thus more creatively productive. From the German 19th century let's move to an American tunesmith of that century, Stephen Foster, who set himself up as the first professional songwriter in the country. In an age long before mass media, Foster's tunes traveled around the world. Still, he didn't end well. He spent his pathetic last years virtually living in a saloon, writing tunes on a barrelhead for quick sale to buy whiskey. One of his most familiar is "Jeanie With the Light-Brown Hair," with its tone of gentle passion soaring upward on "borne like a vapor on the summer air." It has been championed by everybody from Jascha Heifetz to Spike Jones. As an example of its universality, here's a choral version by the National Taiwan University Chorus.

As noted above, symphonic themes tend to be less tuney, more open-ended, because what's important is what can be made of them, what happens to them over time. What I'm calling a tuney tune has a beginning, middle, and end, and in a long piece, what can you do but play it again louder, or something? Johannes Brahms produced one of the most ubiquitous melodies of all time with his “Lullaby,” originally written for an old inamorata who'd gone on to have a kid with somebody else. Its accompaniment is based on a Viennese song the lady used to sing to him. Here and there in his instrumental music Brahms let fly with a stupendous tune, and one of them is the third movement of his Third Symphony. I suspect Brahms knew that with this one he had a hit on his hands. The movement is the theme over and over in changing orchestral garb, with a bit of B section. I have a theory that nobody forgets the first time they hear this uncannily beautiful, heartrending, sui generis music.

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In American popular music, the superstar of the middle decades of the last century was George Gershwin, who wrote his first hit, "Swanee," in about 10 minutes at age 20, while riding a bus (or so he claimed). That song paid the rent for the rest of his life. He went on to a long row of tremendous songs, and meanwhile taught himself to be a symphonic composer as well. In his short life the climax of that development was Porgy and Bess, the greatest American opera and a timeless example of how to make a successful crossover, in this case between opera and Broadway. Its most famous aria is, of course, “Summertime,” but the one that moves me most in this tale of a crippled beggar and his drug-addicted lover is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," which is equally a true operatic aria at the service of the story, and a moving and unforgettable melody on its own. In both words and music, it manages to bring together powerful feeling and incipient heartbreak—it's a tragic love song. This clip is from the Trevor Nunn BBC production conducted by Simon Rattle.

That kind of crossover went in the other direction with the work of Kurt Weill, a classically and Germanically trained composer who discovered a populist strain when he got involved with lefty playwright Bert Brecht. Their most celebrated collaboration was The Three-Penny Opera. Its leading tune, "Mack the Knife," was a hit in the ’50s for Bobby Darin. I'm kind of flummoxed by my own affection for this song, because there's practically nothing to it: two simple little phrases mainly designed to project a long and nasty lyric. My favorite version of it is the scraggly and vital rendition, with equally scraggly pit band, by Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, for whom the song was written. The words are a narrative of rapine and murder, set with bitter irony to a sweet pop tune—that being Brecht and Weill in a nutshell.

Finally we arrive at modern pop music. Here we run into my feeling that on the whole, our pop tunes, including ones I happen to like, are not particularly tuney. A semi-exception to that pattern are some songs of the Beatles—I suspect the ones that Paul McCartney was mainly responsible for. One of the few examples in the last half-century of a popular standard in the traditional sense is McCartney's "Yesterday." Here's a tuney tune par excellence. McCartney's own original version is interestingly straight-ahead and a bit brisk in tempo, given its theme of lost love. (The words, for me, are spotty at best, but the tune unforgettable.) George Martin's string-quartet arrangement gives it elegant support.

So what about the present, many of you will ask. I admit that in pop music I'm not much involved with the present, and new classical music these days is not much involved with tunes. My composer colleague Andy Vores maintains that true melodies are founded on traditional harmony, and when that harmony is put aside, as in much of today's concert music, melody in the traditional sense is impossible. I don't agree that it's impossible; even a tonally free, unaccompanied melody can work if it has a coherent pattern and some emotional center. But indeed, in the classical world there have not been a lot of tunes out there lately. Meanwhile, much pop of the last decades is founded on what has been called "performers' music," which means that you're into the performer and their image, and maybe the lyrics, and the notes as such don't matter so much.

But what about my title, the most beautiful melody in the world? Actually, I have a definition of that vaporous entity: The most beautiful melody  in the world is the one that at the moment you can't get out of your head. Not in the sense of worming annoyingly into your mind, but rather of somehow capturing something important and moving to you in particular, which may or may not be something that moves the masses. For me, off and on for some time, it's been a relatively obscure Yiddish song from 1911: "Mayn rue Plats," which I find passionately, sadly, hauntingly beautiful. Also subtly ironic, because I don't ultimately believe in art that flaunts its politics, even when I agree with the politics. This is a high-leftist song by Morris Rosenfeld, who was known as "the sweatshop poet." (Here's a translation of the words.) I always appreciate it when art violates my principles and still works. This one does. From the first time I heard it, I was transfixed. Like a haunting face, like love, that's what a great melody can do for you.

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This piece I hope will be a provocation for readers to cite their own favorites in the comments, including recent pop that's largely out of my own purview. In my next article, I'll nominate some whole pieces for most beautiful in the world, which is a quite different matter than having a beautiful tune.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.