The Greatest Song Ever Written

What is the greatest song ever written?

That’s a discussion that has gone on for decades, if not centuries, and will continue to go on for an eternity. Radio stations have Top 100 song marathons on holiday weekends. Websites abound categorizing music fan’s varied choices. Music pundits are always available to share their expert opinions based on sales and stats and song rankings and weeks stuck atop the music charts.

Well, I’m here to set the record straight.  The greatest song is not Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. It’s not Don Maclean’s American Pie. It’s not a song by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Nirvana or Elvis Presley or Woody Guthrie. It’s not even a song by my all time favorite musician, Jackson Browne, whose music has had a more profound effect on my life than any other. It’s not a song written during the 20th or 21st centuries when what we all know as traditional Rock and Roll music became the backdrop to our every living moments.

The greatest song ever… well, it’s not really a “song” per se. Let’s see, what’s the proper word… it’s a Piece, it’s a Movement. In fact, it’s the 10th movement of the cantata Herz und Mund Tat und Leben, BWV 147.


Don’t worry, if you don’t recognize the formal name, you’ve heard it, believe me. I don’t have scientifically garnered evidence of this but I’d venture to guess that no piece of music has been covered by as many musicians, arranged more often into so many distinct versions, played by so many different musical instruments. It’s been performed on church organs, pianos, and classical guitars. It’s been performed by full symphonic orchestras and small chamber groups. It’s been performed with vocals and without. It’s been played on kids xylophones and recorders and toy pianos. Check out youtube… there are classical versions, pop versions, heavy metal versions. There’s even a guy who plays it by rubbing his hands over a table full of water filled wine glasses! Very cool!

Here’s a particularly stunning rendition of it in my opinion. Although not originally written for guitar, I find classical guitar versions the most powerful and moving. Take a listen.

Yes… you’ve heard it.

I grew up playing the cello. I started in fifth grade and stopped when I graduated from High School. I took personal lessons and played in the school orchestra. I participated in contests and festivals.  I got pretty good at it, although not as good as I could have been if I had really put the effort in. When I went away to college the music department wanted me to continue playing but I was tired of it. I wanted to drink and chase girls and screw around… oh, and of course, study. These days I realize that I will always regret not continuing but it was one of those decisions that you make as a teenager that sounds right at the time. Although I still own the instrument, these days I can barely bang out Mary Had a Little Lamb.

What it taught me though, was a love… okay, maybe love is too strong a word… how about a deep respect for classical music. Colby College, where my wife Kim and I went to school, offers what is called a Jan Plan, a month-long class you can take during January when the school is mostly closed down and most of the students have gone home. One year Kim and I took a Chamber Music class taught by a four piece, string chamber group, who would basically sit in the front of the lecture hall and play for us, while teaching us the musical structure and history of chamber music.  It was one of the few classes in college where I somehow managed to pull off an A grade.  But Kim and I would walk to class together and walk back to the dorms together. We would eat together in the cafeterias. We would sit through the class in the mornings and when it was over, the days were free with no other classes or homework to be concerned about. It was a part of me that I was able to share with the girl I was falling in love with and although many of the details are lost to my aging memory, it was a month that I will remember always.

I still listen to classical music occasionally. It’s very soothing and grounding to me. I often like to have it playing in the background if I am working at home or washing dishes or writing. It puts me into a place and a frame of mind that is very difficult to obtain in this hectic and stressful world we live in. When it comes to composers, Johann Sebastian Bach was the fucking rock star of his day, in my opinion the greatest to ever compose music. In a very simplistic viewpoint, without over analyzing every note, his melodies are happier and more upbeat than any other composer, less dissonant and grating than many of his counterparts. I won’t claim to be an expert on any of this but I know what sounds good to me.

And his greatest piece of music… Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Now don’t go thinking I’ve gone all religious and spiritual on y’all. I have not! But if there is a piece of music that can put someone, even a hell-bound, heathen like me… in a spiritual place, this is it! I don’t really consider it a wedding song, like I consider the classic Pachelbel Canon which was played at my wedding, although I understand it has become a wedding staple.  I don’t really consider it a Christmas song either, although it gets a lot of play time in its many versions during the holidays.

For me it’s a piece of music that transcends all of that. If you’re happy it can make you happier. If you’re sad it can make you sadder. It makes me cry… yes… cry, pretty much every time I hear it. I can’t help it… I’m listening to it as I type this… can you see the tears falling on my keyboard? It’s the one melody that I think, if I had to hear over and over for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t tire of hearing. It’s a melody that reminds me of my Mom who is no longer with us. It’s the background music to a life of love and friendship and family and happiness and sadness. It’s classical music that has become mainstream and will stand the test of time longer than any other piece of music. And in my opinion, it’s the greatest song ever written.

It turns out the underlying melody that has become so recognizable to the world was not written by Bach himself, but by composer and violinist Johann Schop. I never knew that until reading some Wikipedia notes. That’s okay, just like today’s musicians who don’t write all their own songs, if it’s your face on the album cover, you get all the credit.

Even 300+ years later!


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26 responses to “The Greatest Song Ever Written

  1. My husband loves classical music. I never listen to it on my own (despite having played piano growing up), but when it’s on I always end up enjoying it. At the end of the day though, it’s always the music. The lyrics just take us a little bit closer to the music that’s already there.

  2. Kim

    Wow! You continue to amaze me and remind me every day as to why I fell in love with you almost 26 years ago. Combining such a lovely piece with wonderful memories warms my heart as I sit here at work, indoors, trudging through spreadsheets and reconcilements! As usual, you have made the ordinary oh-so-extraordinary in your skillful, sensitive way 🙂 Thanks for brightening my day!

  3. How cool you played cello! I was on a classical music kick back in college as well. I took music appreciation and piano lessons. I am still blown away by (Ode to Joy), symphony No. 9 by Beethoven. One of my all-time favorites! I know every last note.

    Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is pretty amazing, too, of course. I sang it in high school choir and loved every minute of it. Also a big Mozart fan, he could really rock it out. Great post, Steve!

  4. I know you know I love these “backstory on famous music” kinds of posts. Nicely done. I enjoyed your memories of the various times it underscored your life.

    Bach regularly re-arranged melodies from works his audiences would have been familiar with. Most church-based composers of the time did that, because they were expected to present something different EVERY WEEK! Fortunately for us, his skill often elevated the quality of the original source works. Bach was considered merely competent (not special) during his own lifetime. His sons were more famous and appreciated.

    Having sung this in choirs hundreds of times, I find the original German text flows more easily, which isn’t surprising. Unlike Handel who wrote in five languages, Bach only understood Latin and German. It’s also more personal and emotional in meaning than the “traditional” English lyric.

    The wiki article on the cantata incorrectly lists Jahn, who wrote a later hymn using the same melody. The words for BVW 147 are by Salomon Franck. In any case, I agree with you that the piece “sings” because of the beauty of that melody.

  5. I know that piece very, very well; I first heard it possibly aged 4 or 5, a piano version performed by Dinu Lipatti which my parents had on record. And it is, indeed, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

  6. Richard Wiseman

    I’m not musical myself, but I reckon for my part that Bordin’s String Quartet is the best ‘bit’ of music ever written…. though I also love the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony number 9 ‘Pathetique’ and maybe Paul Weller’s ‘Above The Clouds’ from his first solo album and then there’s ‘Way Over There’ Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and then… hmmm depends on the day and the weather.

  7. OMG, you play the cello? I adore the cello! My mom was a piano teacher so I had to play the piano. I gave it up because I wanted to spend more time at the mall and at cheerleading practice. God, we’re idiots when we’re young, aren’t we? I still play, but not nearly as well as I’d like.

    Classical music is the best writing music. Something about it fires those rusty cylinders. I played Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring for a wedding a couple of years ago. It is a beautiful piece. Personally, I’m a Beethoven junkie. His music gives me the chills (and makes me cry.)

    • Yes I do play… or I did. I can probably do a little better than Mary had a little lamb, but it’s sad how the skills are gone. I’ve rarely played it in the last 20 years, a few times here and there. The bow has about 1/2 the hair it should these days so I can’t get a great sound out of it anymore. The guitar has been my baby since, although that’s just a hobby instrument. Like I said to Maineiac, keep playing the piano, keep the skills up, and if any of your kids take to music, encourage them to go as far as they can.

  8. I play piano. Perhaps it lends me a different ear. My favorite piece (today) is DeBussy’s Arabesque No. 1.

  9. All the pieces (and most of the composers) mentioned here are some of my favs. My husband plays classical piano, among other things, as a hobby and I always felt so blessed when my kids were growing up that they had his example and music around them all the time (we have a beautifully restored parlor grand). My son now writes his own music! Have any of you ever seen “Immortal Beloved?” It’s about part of Beethoven’s life and I can’t help but think of one particular scene in that movie every time I hear Jesu, and like you, Steve, I cry. I have to agree it is definitely one of the best songs ever written if not the best. It never fails to move me. Thanks for posting this. What a joy to read everyone’s comments on your beautiful thoughts.

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