Last weekend I listened to much of the annual Classic FM Hall of Fame. This takes place over the four days of what some people, including government ministers, refer to as ‘the Easter weekend’. Easter does not start until Easter Sunday and today is Easter Saturday. Last Saturday was Easter Eve. But it is true that for most people it’s a four-day weekend with Bank Holidays on Good Friday and Easter Monday. This is the 25th
year of this event and its format has remained unchanged since the beginning. Listeners are invited to send in their choices of three favourite pieces of classical music. The results are compiled and then the top 300 pieces are played in ascending order culminating with the number one choice being played up to 9pm on Easter Monday.
Classic FM claims this is the biggest survey of classical music taste in the world and this year claimed 134,000 entries, i.e. over 400,000 selections. Most of the top choices pretty much stay the same although the order may vary slightly, but in the lower orders there is a surprising amount of churn with some barely known pieces coming into the reckoning. The definition of classical music is never pinned down. Classic FM is a commercial station deriving most of its income from advertising and so it will remain broadly based in its appeal. I have never heard a piece of Stockhausen on the station.
It is neither high nor low brow being firmly in the middle. Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Elgar and Chopin have the largest number of entries but of living composers John Williams is to the fore. Classic FM encourages film music with a weekly programme dedicated to it. I have mixed views on this but can agree that if the film genre had been available to them, Messrs Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky would no doubt have tried their hand and probably earned much gold. My reservation is not that there is no good film music in the classical tradition. Quite the reverse. My favourite film score is Lawrence of Arabia
by Maurice Jarre who also composed the music for Dr Zhivago
. The great Ennio Morricone was known to influence the director with his film composition. He gets in the chart with his score for The Mission
featuring the haunting Gabriel’s Oboe (No 59) and Cinema Paradiso
Altogether there are 25 film scores in the 300 and John Williams has more than half of them with 13. No doubt the outstanding music for Schindler’s List
deserves its position at No 14 and you can see why Saving Private Ryan
with its moving Hymn to the Fallen is at No 38 but I think that others of his work don’t really stand alone away from the movie while something like Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter
films is ridiculously high at No 26. Similarly the music from The Lord of the Rings
by Howard Shore is heavy going but is alarmingly high at No 40.
It is possible that other pieces of classical music have benefitted by being used in films. I can think of three very beautiful themes which deserve their place in the Hall of Fame but were undoubtedly popularised in films. Gustave Mahler’s 5th
Symphony might not be particularly well known but the slow movement is because it was used by Luchino Visconti in Death in Venice
. The slow movement from Mozart’s 21st
Piano Concerto was famously featured in the Swedish film Elvira Madigan
and his Clarinet Concerto was featured in Out of Africa,
although John Barry’s score to that film also gets in the Countdown at No 135.
Before I leave the issue of film music it’s worth pointing out that several Classic FM presenters frequently play some of my favourite film music including Eric Coates’ stirring march for The Dambusters[i]
and Elmer Bernstein’s two great themes for John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven
and The Great Escape
but none of these made the top 300. Perhaps it’s a generation thing.
While the sample of 138,000 listeners participating seems high there are still some strange statistical anomalies. The Hall of Fame is in its 25th
year and you would expect some churn in audience over that time and therefore perhaps some change in listening preferences. That must be why Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto which was number one in the first five years has gradually slipped to No 24. But his two other works featured this year have slipped more drastically. His Kol Nidrei fell by 59 places to No 184 while his Scottish Fantasy fell by an enormous 164 places to No 264. That’s right, it was No 100 last year and this year is No 264. To my statistical eye that suggests that the distribution of the votes is heavily skewed to traditional favourites and that the level of voting for the lower places is substantially lower, thus enabling big changes in places with small changes in the number of votes.
That would also perhaps explain why frankly quite a large number of entries are virtually unknown. If I had a way of polling my readership of this blog I would ask them to tell me how many of the following pieces they have heard of, let alone heard. And if they have heard of them would they seriously rank them ahead of pieces by Joseph Haydn who had only one at No 300?
288 Czardas by Vittorio Monti
284 Parce by Miki Domine
272 Tutto E Bellissimo by Alberto Giurioli
271 Piano Concerto by Nigel Hess[ii]
245 Kingdom Hearts by Yoko Shinemura
231 Nuvole Bianche by Ludovico Einaudi
229 Elevazione by Domenico Zipoli
228 Suite from the Victoria Kitchen Garden by Paul Reade
213 The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre
203 Divenire by Ludovico Einaudi
198 Seven Wonders Suite by Stuart Mitchell
191 The Glorious Garden by Debbie Wiseman (up 96 places!)
176 The Land of the Mountain and the Flood by Hamish MacCunn
171 Final Fantasy Series by Nobuo Uematsu
161 Slovak Suite by Vitezslav Novak
156 Le Onde by Ludovico Einaudi
136 O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen
99 William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet by Craig Armstrong
84 I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi
60 Spiegel in Spiegel by Arvo Part
You might think I am knocking modern versions of Classical music but one of these pieces was baroque, another nineteenth century and another early twentieth century. The two Japanese composers in the list write for video games. Another composer in the list is only 29 years old and I just think it’s too early to reach the conclusion that his piece can be one of your favourite all-time pieces of classical music. Classic FM to its credit does try from time to time to discover and promote new composers. I am not questioning that but the judgement of the listener. Overall it’s an entertaining show lasting 48 hours over a four-day holiday weekend but I question the depth to which it really tells us what are the most popular pieces of classical music. More accurate tests, though impossible to calculate, would be sales of sheet music for players to use; sales of recorded music in hard not soft form; and sales of concert tickets, though here there are other factors like the attraction of solo musicians and the blend of a mixed programme. There is no cost to the listener in emailing their choices to Classic FM. The broadcaster even incentivises them with a cash prize for one lucky listener.
So what were my three entries? I have never entered. So am I not a bit hypocritical criticising some listeners for their selections if I can’t be bothered? Isn’t that a bit like complaining about the result of a General Election after you didn’t vote in it? Well, my reason is that I find it too difficult. I love a wide variety of music and will listen to different pieces at different times and in different moods. When cassette tapes were in general use I made dozens of recordings. These included some on the model of Desert Island Discs, the long-running radio programme where a guest is invited to select their eight favourite records and also explain why. I made twelve such cassettes, that is ninety-six records. Not all were Classical as I also like some popular music, particularly American song book. Disc No 1 included Beethoven’s Leonore, Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot; Rachmaninov’s 18th
variation on a theme by Paganini; and Sibelius’ 5th
Symphony. The other four were from pop music. Using a similar formula for the other 11 cassettes, overall I made 48 classical choices, half of the total. I chose works by 28 different composers. If I found it impossible to get down to eight, how could I get down to three?
So who won? Beethoven, in the 250th
anniversary year of his birth, made a good showing with no less than six of the top twenty and getting his highest position yet with his great Ninth Symphony at No 2. Mozart and Tchaikovsky both had three in the top 20 while Elgar had his usual two with the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto. My wife is in a What’s App group. One of the members messaged that she was listening to the Hall of Fame but if Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending won again she would scream. She screamed.