In contemporary music, we can measure the popularity of albums by sales. We can measure individual tracks by clicks. Objective measurement can at least suggest “popularity.”
In the world of oldies, it’s a little more complicated, because how a record sold when it was new may accord with how you like it now.
My high opinion of Steely Dan, Yes, Earth Wind & Fire, and Crosby Stills & Nash is as high now as it was when these groups were new. But I don’t like the 1968 Archies hit “Bang Shang-A-Lang” any more. It’s a stupid record, but when it was new I liked it, due to the fact that Cathy, a really cute girl, liked it. I always liked Frank Zappa and Sting but only in recent years have I come to fully appreciate them.
In classical music, it’s even trickier. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” isn’t one album. There are more than 100 recordings of this one work. You might rank it very high if, and perhaps only if, you get to specify a particular performance you like a lot. (For me the best requires the opening of the Winter concerto to combine a very metallic harpsichord with violins playing sul ponticello – so it sounds icy.)
Record sales? We don’t count much when we consider what classical works count. We simply form our own opinions, sometimes (wrongly) based on their “importance,” more often (rightly) based on whether we would enjoy listening to it right this minute.
Rating classical music is further complicated by the fact that most symphonies, concertos, quartets, trios and sonatas have multiple movements, and you may like one movement particularly. I’m not into Beethoven’s Ninth the way most people are, but, boy, I really like that scherzo.
In evaluating the quality of the top 40 music of my lifetime, one issue is the fact that top 40, predating the balkanization of radio into album-oriented rock and progressive rock and urban contemporary, etc., was a mix of many musics. How do you compare “Hey, Jude” with “A Boy Named Sue,” or “Suspicious Minds” with “Living in Shame”?
Classical music has an analogous problem. How do you compare Beethoven’s Ninth, which most consider an “important” piece in the development of classical music, and also a piece most people would enjoy listening to right now, with something as slight as Pachelbel’s Canon?
Gene Schiller invited HPR listeners to submit requests for a top 100 list of great classics, and the top three were Beethoven’s Ninth, “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Pachelbel’s Canon.
I’m okay with “Rhapsody in Blue” being so far up the list. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, it’s important – a milestone in the melding of classical music and jazz, and still one of the most successful Third Stream works, but also a piece most of us would happily listen to right now. (For me it’s also a piece that depends on the performance: I prefer the original chart for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.)
I’ve always found Pachelbel’s Canon boring, and, forgive me, but I feel the same way about Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which came in fourth. I still like Beethoven’s Fifth (which came in 26th) and the Seventh, which in past generations was the most programed of all Beethoven symphonies. And – this is an offbeat view – I really like Beethoven’s Second, highly underrated in my view.
Fifth place went to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, the one he wrote after overcoming the writer’s block set off by the failure of his First Symphony. This is an offbeat view, too, but that First Symphony is my favorite of all works by Rachmaninoff.
Rounding out the top 10 are several works I would probably rank highly, too – Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, the Brandenburg Three, “The Nutcracker,” “Appalachian Spring,” and Adagio for Strings. There is a sprightly melody in Copland’s ballet that is one of my most frequent earwigs. I’m also a fan of his “Dance Symphony” and “Music for the Theater.”
In the next rankings we find the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, “Scheherazade,” Mozart’s 40th, his Clarinet Concerto, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, the Sibelius Second, Satie’s first “Gymnopedie,” and Mahler’s Second.
The “Gymnopedie” is one of the few “slight” pieces that can stand up to all these great big masterpieces. I love Mozart’s 40th, especially the opening movement. I love the Sibelius Second, though many would give the Fifth pride of place and for some reason the one I keep returning to lately is the Third. My Mahler preferences are also quirky: my faves are the Sixth and Seventh, and the Sixth would actually make the top 10 of any list I worked up.
“Scheherazade” is always good to hear, though in Rimsky Korasakov’s book I like the “Coq d’Or” suite and the “Russian Easter” Overture even more.
I think my number one work would be Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” which made 47th on the HPR list, lower than “The Lark Ascending.”
Ravel’s Quartet might be second on my own list. It is 60th on the HPR list.
Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” would be very high on my list. On the HPR list “The Firebird” is 43rd and “Rite of Spring” is 58th. “Symphony of Psalms” didn’t make the cut. Neither did “Histoire du Soldat,” another personal fave, or Symphony in C.
Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky are a bit neglected on the list, though both are represented by their “Romeo and Juliet” compositions. I would find space for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (yes, the First; many people prefer the Second) and his Third Piano Concerto and his Fifth Symphony. Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies are beloved but I keep returning to the Second, the “Little Russian.”
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is 63rd on the HPR list, and a fine piece it is, but I love the 1st and 9th.
Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” which bores me, came in 100th; I would prefer the Chamber Symphony.
If you tried to make your own list, you would find 100 pieces a small number to rank.
For weeks after doing such a list you’ll think, “Oh, I forgot ‘Gaite Parisienne’!” or, “Crap, I left out that ‘Elvira Madigan’ thing Mozart wrote!”
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are some classical works you think other people tend to underrate.